Michael Brandt in A Spalding Gray Matter
Photo © Monique Carboni
Michael Brandt in A Spalding Gray Matter
Photo © Monique Carboni
No, you do not have to have seen Spalding Gray's monologues to enjoy Michael Brandt's A Spalding Gray Matter. In fact, Brandt himself was just barely familiar with Gray's work in 2001, the year that he found events in his life paralleling those of the late writer-performer, best known for Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box.

During that fateful year, while vacationing in Ireland, Gray was in a car accident that left him severely injured. Brandt, for his part, developed a case of pneumonia -- misdiagnosed as a simple cold -- that caused one of his lungs to fill entirely with fluid and two of his major organs to fail. In A Spalding Gray Matter, Brandt tells of the severe depression that followed his recovery, which has brought him to think that he may understand what caused Gray to take his life by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry on January 10, 2004. Some might find this presumptuous, but no one who sees this memoir/tribute will accuse Brandt of being exploitative. His observations are honest, heartfelt, and moving.

As Gray used to do, Brandt tells his story while sitting at an otherwise bare table with a bottle of water, sharing intimate details about his life and family. His hometown of Lawrence, Kansas is a liberal oasis at the northeast corner of a state where "creation scientists" continue to battle with the courts over the teaching of evolution. (He memorably describes these people as a group of old men flipping through a Bible and saying, "No dinosaurs here!")

Brandt's cosmopolitan tastes and love of theater soon alienated him from his family, and he moved to New York City at his first opportunity. Though he cherished his independence, his medical condition soon forced him to return to Kansas and depend on his parents' help. The father to whom he never related was now responsible for bathing him, moving him around the house, and carrying bags of his fluids. Brandt spares us none of the uncomfortable details about his symptoms.

He also gets considerable mileage from the quirks of being hospitalized, such as being asked to rate his pain on a 1-to-10 scale and a series of bizarre questions posed prior to his surgery, such as whether he had ever smoked marijuana. In one memorable scene, Brandt details a link between the harmful painkillers he was forced to take and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that will surely leave some members of the audience outraged about the influence of big business over health care.

Under Ian Morgan's smooth direction, Brandt relates even the most intense episodes of his life with charm and self-deprecating wit. In his performance style, he imitates Gray to such an extent that he risks being lost in Gray's shadow, yet Brandt approaches the material with a commendable humility and respect for the subject. A Spalding Gray Matter stirs our emotions by showing us how one man's art can deeply influence another's.