Who is it that forbids me/darkness,
and who would give me eyes again?
--The Oedipus of Seneca, Act V
Spalding Gray is about as economy-minded a showman as you could find. Not only does he require nothing more for his act than a table and chair, a mike, a spiral-bound notebook and a glass of water, he can also recycle any modestly interesting bit of life experience into part of the show without extensively reshaping it as drama.
Better still, he has an enviable professional license to indulge himself. If he wants to fly to Minnesota to a sweat lodge or to the Philippines to a psychic surgeon for an eye problem, well, why shouldn't he? He can do a monologue, make his money back, and write the airfares off his taxes. Same deal if he wants to spend a thousand dollars getting a dubious blood-and-urine workup so that he can be treated by an apparently insane "nutritional ophthalmologist" in aptly named Nutley, New Jersey.
As a scam, it's right up there with being a movie reviewer. And since the fruits of his wacky adventures--in this case, Gray's Anatomy, an account of his panicky search for an alternative remedy to retinal surgery--are so quizzically funny and, sometimes, so covertly touching, who can knock him for it?
The first of Gray's monologues to be made into a movie, Swimming to Cambodia, was essentially a long and rather boastful answer to the question: What did you do on your working vacation? Gray, a fixture with the Wooster Group in New York, had been hired to play a small part in The Killing Fields, Roland Joffe's fine 1984 film about Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. It was Gray's first movie work, and he was quite good in his six-or-seven-line role as a U.S. Embassy official.
Because Gray's principal shtick in the theater is sitting at a table telling anecdotes, supposedly true, about his life, he naturally turned the colorful experiences he had on the Thailand locations of The Killing Fields into an evening's yak. It was one third gush about the cheery decadence of Bangkok, one third sheepish history lesson about Cambodia. The other third consisted of a variety of amusing stories which he related, pretty tenuously, to his main theme, obviously just because he wanted to include them.
Jonathan Demme filmed Swimming to Cambodia with fluid elegance and simplicity in 1987, and it was a crowd-pleaser on the art-house circuit. It also made Gray, like his avant-garde colleague Wallace Shawn, into a familiar character player in films like Clara's Heart, Beaches and The Paper. He played the Stage Manager in Our Town on Broadway, and he even has a recurring role on The Nanny.
Also like Shawn, Gray's postcinema performance pieces have grown somewhat darker. A lapsed Christian Scientist haunted by the suicide of his disturbed mother, Gray poured much of this torment into his memoir/novel Impossible Vacation, and into Monster in a Box, the monologue he wrote about writing the novel. Monster was filmed by Nick Broomfield in 1992.
Gray's Anatomy, which was first performed as a workshop at Scottsdale Center for the Arts in 1993, deals with Gray's anxious entry into the "Bermuda Triangle of Health"--ages 50 to 53--which, he's told, you either emerge from to live to a ripe old age or disappear into. Learning he has a "macula pucker" on the retina of his left eye, Gray can't accept that the best course of action is to let the nice, sensible Manhattan specialist cut into his eye for a "macula peeling."
The film version of Gray's Anatomy, now getting a belated opening at Valley Art Theatre in Tempe, was directed by Steven Soderbergh of sex, lies and videotape in a flashy style, with elaborate stage effects--gushing steam for the sweat lodge, a strobe for an eye exam. It also opens with a splendid collection of talking-head interviews with other people who have suffered various ghastly eye traumas. These interviewees reappear, much less effectively, at intervals throughout the film to comment on Gray's approach to his illness.
Room was made in the piece for these nods to cinematic broadening by removing huge chunks of Gray's text, about his trip to Bali, for instance. No great tragedy here, of course--even at Gray's most enjoyable, his digressive style allows for painless abridgement. But there is one unfortunate loss from the Scottsdale text (which I saw performed): Gray's recounting of his wedding to his longtime girlfriend-collaborator Renee Shafransky, the defiant, hopeful end to his health frettings.
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A long--and admittedly funny--story about Gray doing yard work for Hassidic rabbis is so loosely connected to the health theme that it might have been displaced for the wedding story, which was, after all, the finale of the original production. Without it, the piece's aura of sadness is insufficiently dispelled.
The source of the shadow that has fallen over the last few Gray works is, I think, the increasing intensity with which they depict an intelligent, obsessive-compulsive mind grinding away. Swimming to Cambodia was essentially Gray telling us about a good gig; the monologues since have been Gray telling us, in no less humorous terms, about his upsetting tendency to overthink everything in his life.
The internal conflict of Gray's Anatomy is supposed to be between Gray's fear of secular medicine and his desire to believe in miracle healings. But pursuing the metaphysical through psychic surgeons gives neither science nor mysticism its due. Like most of Gray's material, Gray's Anatomy is delightfully funny, but it does beg a troubling question: When does one go from turning one's life into quirky monologues to living one's life with intentional quirkiness so that it will make a good monologue?
Directed by Steven Soderbergh; with Spalding Gray.