“Boy! You’re getting a real soundtrack here!” says Spalding Gray.
I’m chatting on the phone with the writer/performer during a break in his latest tour. [Gray is currently performing his monologue, Morning, Noon and Night, at Providence’s Trinity Rep, after appearing in Los Angeles, New York, and New Hampshire.] He is talking to me from his home on Long Island, and the soundtrack he’s referring to is the background noise of his two young sons having a kid-like discussion–okay, a fight–over the fate of the TV screen. Nintendo, or a Muppets video?
Not quite the sounds you’d expect to emanate from the digs of the angst-ridden, too-cool-for-cool Soho urbanite you know as Spalding Gray? The monologist who brought us the autobiographical Swimming to Cambodia, based on his experiences in Thailand during the filming of Roland Joffe’s The Killing Fields? And the equally exotic Gray’s Anatomy, which dealt with his trip to the Philippines to find way-out cures for his eye-ailment?
Yes, the sounds of happy domesticity are a bit of a shock for those of us familiar with Gray’s It’s a Slippery Slope. That recent work chronicled his near-nervous breakdown and the end of his long-term relationship with writer-director Renee Shafransky, a breakup brought on in part by his bad-boy behavior and shamelessly huge “I won’t grow up” male ego.
So try this on for size: Gray’s latest monologue, Morning, Noon and Night, describes one day (October 8, 1997) in the life of his new-found nuclear-family: Gray and his girlfriend, Kathie; their baby, Theo; their five-year-old son, Forrest; and Kathie’s pre-teen daughter, Marissa. It’s an all-American family album, a normal day of “oohs” and “ahhs” and Tickle Me Ernies in upscale Sag Harbor.
Gray is a father in awe, talking about his kids. He rides his bike and walks to the video store. He prepares dinner and listens to pop music.
Will the real Spalding Gray please stand up?
“In the grandest Walt Whitman sense, I’m full of contradictions,” Gray offers. Critics are calling Morning, Noon and Night, which officially opened in Chicago last fall after a work-in-progress outing early in the year, “an uncharacteristically radiant, life-affirming chronicle,” one which is “a liberating experience for [Gray] and for us.”
Both Morning, Noon and Night and the fact that he’s living each day as a father and family man are as surprising to Gray as to anyone. Performing the monologue is a different experience for the man who never tires of his own neuroses. “It’s been a really joyous event for me,” he says. “It leaves me feeling like I’m in a much more peaceful place–an up, celebratory place I never dreamed was in me–and that’s been a real treat.”
Of his latest transition, Gray says: “My life is much more balanced now with the family, and I hadn’t expected that. The character of Spalding Gray is more grounded than he’s ever been.”
Wait a minute. “The character of Spalding Gray?” This duality is a concept that Gray says he began to explore when showcasing his monologues as a member of New York’s Wooster Group in the late ’70s. “Once I was performing enough,” he explains, “I was able to see a consistency in presentation, a character-like quality that wasn’t as demonstrative in everyday life.” He describes his onstage character as “a kind of American-naive, Yankee-paranoid, upper-middle-class Kerouac searcher.” As opposed to Spalding Gray-on-the-street, the monologue-Gray is “much more of the Salinger character.” So it makes sense that Gray considers himself an actor, but shies away from other categories, including “playwright.”
“I really do collage work. I readjust memory to make it into art, to make it more dramatic, like a good dramaturg,” Gray says. “I’m working from a tangential stream of consciousness,” he continues, citing writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce as his influences. “So it’s not a classical dramatic arc. Rather, I’m trying to engage the audience, get them caught in the fabric of a personal story.”
As a “monologist”? Or a “storyteller”? Or something else entirely? “I’d always hoped I’d be thought of as an ‘American Original,'” says Gray. His characteristic, unflappable New England tone gives no clue as to whether he’s actually serious.
And then he discusses the origin of a label he does like. It was after a performance of an early monologue, Sex and Death to the Age 14, at the Performing Garage in New York. The piece concerned Gray’s adolescent sexual encounters and his first thoughts of the great beyond. Gray became used to seeing young boys in the audience: “Neighbors would send their sons to get initiated,” he recalls. But, at one performance, he spied a 10- or 11-year-old girl.
“When I asked her why she was there, she said, ‘My dad told me I had to come and see the talking man.’ ‘The talking man!’ That’s the label I’m most comfortable with.”
On stage, at least. Off stage, the talking man is hard at work trying to be comfortable in his own life, in a role he never thought he’d be filling–and then figuring out how to talk about it. The old “life and art” thing, made more complicated by the fact that Gray’s life is his art. Sort of.
As if on cue, there is a shriek of a small child who’s not getting his way, or attention from his dad. This is followed by the sound the phone being dropped. “What’s the matter?” coos Gray’s calm voice in the background. And after a moment, “Well, watch it together!”
“Morning, Noon and Night is another world, a visitation to a time that isn’t any more,” says Gray. “My life is the same, yet that day is very distant. It’s always strange to have the children burst into the dressing room [after a performance]–the real chaos, rather than the mastered chaos.” And then, with the sound of boys negotiating in the background, Gray echoes a sentiment familiar to all parents. “How quickly it changes!”
What is the real Spalding Gray’s latest challenge? “To get the balance,” he replies. “Not to perform more than I live. That’s what I’m trying to do.”