Gray area

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The Independent Culture
Spalding Gray can't even compose a bed-time story for his son,

yet he's one of the best monologists in the States today. So where

does he get his material from? Tom Dewe Mathews talks to him

about mid-life crises, hypochondria and the attractions of skiing

Spalding Gray is probably the greatest raconteur performing on the US stage, but he doesn't like being called a storyteller. "I'm not one of those wizened old guys sitting around telling wise old tales. Also," he admits, "I don't know how to make anything up, how to tell the lie that tells the truth." Instead, Spalding reports on what actually happens to him. "The narrative of my stories is shaped by the events of my life; so my monologues are the next chapter of my life. They're my form of public confessional. But," he concedes, "I'd rather tell a life than live a life. It's much easier and much more fun - but I have to live a life in order to tell it."

This sort of crazy circular logic constantly features in "the on-going soap opera of Spalding Gray", the latest instalment of which he brings to London tomorrow for the UK debut of It's a Slippery Slope at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. But it's probably through the movies of his monologues - such as Swimming to Cambodia, based on his role in The Killing Fields, and Monster in a Box - that the Rhode Island-born performer is better known outside the States. And poised behind his usual spartan table, dressed in his trademark LL Bean garb, with microphone at hand, the 56-year-old self-chronicler's, latest film, Gray's Anatomy, shows the sitdown, stand- up comic on top form.

For a man who says that "doubt is my bottom line", the prospect of losing the vision in his left eye is inevitably going to lead to the kind of despair that this self-confessed "ironic hypochondriac" exults in. So, at the beginning of Gray's Anatomy, when Spalding's doctor recommends a micro-surgical procedure that entails, in his words, the "scraping" of the retina, Gray goes into overdrive: "As soon as I heard that word `scraping', I wanted a second and third opinion." From there, the film takes us on a whirlwind world tour of quack medicine. In fact, anywhere but the ophthalmologist's operating table.

In keeping with his own motto: "The `truth' is always in the details", Gray's Anatomy demonstrates a talent the performer has been acquiring since he developed his deceptively simple craft in New York with the Wooster Group during the 1970s: his overarching ability to transcend the first person singular. Because, what is, after all, a fairly common obsession with finding risk-free cures propels the monologist first into following a rigid, high-fibre diet formulated by a crackpot "nutritional ophthalmologist" - which only results in flatulence; then into an Native American hot-rocks, sweat-lodge ceremony in Minneapolis, where all the braves try to sneak away from the suffocating tent - "Get back Lame Deer, you're staying!" orders the woman-witch-doctor. It then progresses across the sea to the blood-splattered operating room of a Philippine psychic, known as the "Elvis Presley of plastic surgeons", before culminating in a dreary tract- house neighbourhood in upstate New York at a doctor's office that is "Hansel and Gretel on acid".

Not surprisingly, soon afterwards, Spalding retreats from these enchanters and charlatans and returns to New York, where he quietly goes under the knife. And there, instead of having his Oedipus complex reinforced - "Oh no, there goes the first eye" - the more conventional operation actually improves his eyesight; but - and there is usually a sting at the end of these monologues - the surgery leaves him with a cataract which, in turn, will have to be operated on.

"Now," he says, speaking over the phone from New York, "I have tinnitus in my ears - which is that inner ringing." But before this prince of paranoia can dwell on his latest infirmity, he's deflected into talking about the monologue he's performing in London. "It's a watershed for me, he replies in his quickfire, foggy voice. "In the other monologues I was the mock American innocent, the Huckleberry Finn character saying, `Hey, look what happened to me.' But with It's a Slippery Slope I take the audience into a realm of sadness. Not self-indulgence, but genuine sadness. But I also come out of it and risk showing the audience that there's a dark side to me, and that I'm prepared to act on it." Whereas, he sums up, "In the other monologues, I was always the victim of circumstance, here I take responsibility for my own actions."

If this sounds like a slippery slide into maudlin introspection then perhaps the convoluted "actions" in Gray's life, which inspired the monologue's creation four years ago, left him with little choice. Back in his 1990 piece, Monster in the Box, he suggested that "Every boy, in order to become a man, must in some way kill his mother off. But in my case, I think my mother and I were in competition and she beat me to it." Reaching 52, he now says, meant that he "survived" his mother's suicide. It is the age at which she killed herself.

But then it all went awry. After he had been married for only five months to the woman he had been living with for the last 10 years, he "impregnated" a neighbour that he had been having an affair with over the previous two years. So he went to his therapist - "a graduate of Auschwitz" - to discuss the affair, but his analyst died of a heart attack before anything could be resolved. Then his father died three days after Spalding saw his son for the first time - when he was eight months old - but his father died not knowing that he had a first grandson. So, finally, Gray divorced and took on his new family. "But," he concludes, "the monologue is really about surviving a mid-life crisis by finding my balance on skis."

Hence the title. As it turns out, however, skiing could definitely be a Gray area. After all, negotiating a ski trail is an ideal metaphor for an adept monologist: a meandering journey with a few bumps, thrills and surprise turns. Indeed, it should be an exhilarating ride, since the piece is overtly about a New England agrophobe confronting the great American outdoors. But even though, at first, Gray says he chose trails for the wimp factor in their names, such as "Dipsy Doodle" and "Pussyfoot", this monologue could fall into a crevice when it's seen by the British critics.

Gray hides behind his spaghetti-junction logic when he's asked about the accusations of "navel-gazing" and "self-obsession" that were levelled at Swimming in Cambodia when he last performed in Britain 10 years ago. "If someone asks me, `Are you a narcissist?', I say, `No,' because a narcissist is not conscious of their narcissism. So that's already ironic; it's already reflexive."

But when pressed as to why others should be interested in his psychic search within Slippery Slope for "a non-ironic, inner-cheer leader", for the first time in the conversation, Gray's voice becomes almost earnest. "Look," he replies. "I try to go through myself out to all other selves; because, if I'm talking about neurotic behaviour, I think we all share that in common. I'm a Freudian to the extent that I believe culture produces neuroses and, to a greater or lesser degree, we all have those fears." Yes, but what about those critics who would rather ignore those fears? "Well, all I can do is look in - in order to look out."

Aside, though, from British distaste for public catharsis, Gray is definitely not one of those people who declare personal questions off-limits when talking shop. In fact, a discussion about his art or craft soon turns into a therapy session. "Skiing was the first thing I'd ever done in my life for myself," he reveals, "where I was able to do something alone without freaking out, without being so lonely that I had an affair or got drunk, so it was a huge breakthrough."

Perhaps the answer to the question of where the art lies in this sort of public-private confession, is that Gray can convey despair better than anyone, that he is an ironically ingenious Candide, a befuddled, existential solipsist who knows how to connect the personal to the universal. In short, his observations always hit the button. At the moment, for instance, he says that he's hanging out in a fishing village on Long Island, "like a tanned vegetable" or he'll talk about his four-year-old son, Forrest, having "non-agenda eyes" and it can even be as simple and direct as the reflection in his mirror, which tells him each day, "Good morning, you're going to die."

Finally, after making some affectionate remarks about his new family - including the ironic information that, because he can't make anything up, he finds it impossible to create bedtime stories for his son - he returns to the subject of his work. "I've gotten to a place," he remarks, "where I'm paid for my observations. Other people have set tasks to get them through the day, but my only task is to look. That's a special place to be, but it's also scary." Then, when he's asked why, Gray sums up his art. "Because I'm a paid dreamer"n

Among the other films of his monologues, a special preview of `Gray's Anatomy' will be show at NFT 1, tonight, 8.45 pm; `It's a Slippery Slope' is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall from tomorrow to Sun. Information: 0171- 928 3232