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Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell

This tribute to the famed autobiographical performer is both hilarious and moving. logo
Frank Wood, Kathleen Chalfant, Hazelle Goodman, and
Ain Gordon in Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell
(© Richard Termine)
Spalding Gray influenced an entire generation -- maybe even more than one -- of autobiographical performers and other theater practitioners. Since his suicide in December of 2003, I've seen or read about numerous shows that pay him deserved tribute. The latest -- and closest to home -- is Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell, conceived by the artist's widow, Kathleen Russo, and the play's director, Lucy Sexton, and now at the Minetta Lane for a two-month run.

Originally presented as a benefit at P.S. 122 -- the downtown hotspot where Gray developed many of his monologues -- the piece interweaves sections of many of Gray's best-known solo performances (including Swimming to Cambodia, Gray's Anatomy, Monster in a Box, and It's a Slippery Slope) with never-before published letters and excerpts from his journals. The result is frequently hilarious and occasionally quite moving. However, the production also feels strangely overproduced, which lessens the impact of Gray's words.

The majority of the show's selections are humorous, with the author's trademark irony and knack for quirky introspection shining through. A clear, dramatic through-line is also in evidence, linking the suicide of Gray's mother and the effects that loss had upon him with the monologist's own later suicide, following a car crash in Ireland that left him with brain damage and severe depression issues. The various monologues are mostly arranged in chronological order, with a few exceptions. Those unfamiliar with Gray's life and/or work, however, may not get all of the references, as certain details are not always properly contextualized.

Stories is performed by a core cast of four -- Kathleen Chalfant, Hazelle Goodman, Ain Gordon, and Frank Wood -- with rotating guest performers (Fisher Stevens at the performance I attended). The script assigns each actor an aspect of Gray's life -- Love, Adventure, Journals, Family, and Career, respectively. Of course, no one's life is divided so neatly, and each actor touches upon more than just the one facet of Gray's identity that they've been assigned.

All of the actors are terrific, often bringing unexpected elements to Gray's writing. None of them attempt to imitate the master storyteller, although Wood's performance most resembles Gray's wry, ironic delivery. Conversely, Goodman's boisterous energy and exaggerated mannerisms are the most strikingly different from Gray's own performance persona. Since the "love" portions of the script are mouthed by Chalfant, there's a rather interesting gender and sexuality doubling that occurs with the actress ever present even though the perspective is distinctly heterosexual and male.

David Korins' evocative set design has a wall in the back made up of pages of Gray's journal writings, and numerous notebooks piled up on a multi-platform stage to signify the incredible creative output of Gray's career. There's also a table with a glass of water placed upon it -- the familiar bare-bones image that marked the majority of Gray's performances. Gordon sits at this table for most of the show, speaking the words from Gray's journals softly into a microphone.

Unfortunately, the simplicity and elegance of this image doesn't seem to have been adequate for Sexton, who has blocked the remaining actors to constantly move about the stage, positioning themselves in rather awkward positions, at times. (For example, Wood delivers one of his speeches while lying flat on the ground.) As ridiculous as this may sound, given the project, it almost seems as if the director doesn't trust the writing enough to let it stand on its own.

Additionally, Fitz Patton's sound design is often too loud and annoying. The actors are overamplified, and it's a relief when Wood steps away from the microphone at one point to simply talk to the audience directly. The abrasive sound effects and snatches of music between various speeches interrupt the flow of the piece, and seem woefully unnecessary. Ben Stanton's lighting could use some subtlety as well, particularly when Gordon is reading out Gray's final journal entries, which are harrowing on their own and don't really need to be emphasized by a dramatic dimming of the lights.

Fittingly, the play ends with a video recording of Gray himself, dancing to the music of Chumbawumba in his 1999 show, Morning, Noon, and Night. In many ways, that piece was atypical of Gray's oeuvre, but extremely appropriate for a show honoring his life and work. It was the artist at his most hopeful and life-affirming, celebrating the existence of his family and his deep, abiding love for them.

[Editor's Note: Estelle Parsons performs with the cast from March 8-11.]

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