An I for an I

There's an unusual and relatively new trend in theater that finds actors performing monologues written by and specifically for other performers. The latest evidence of this trend is Actors Theatre's production of Gray's Anatomy, one of Spalding Gray's better-known monologues now being read by Phoenix actor Jon Gentry at the Herberger Theater Center.

Actors Theatre inaugurated this peculiar trend a few years ago with Kathy Fitzgerald's performance of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the widely acclaimed show written by Jane Wagner for Lily Tomlin to perform. The company followed this success with a production of The Kathy and Mo Show that featured neither Kathy Najimi nor Mo Gaffney enacting bits of their lives but rather Fitzgerald and another local actress in the leads. Next up was Blown Sideways Through Life, Claudia Shear's monologue about the hundred-odd lousy jobs she's endured, read in this case by Michelle Gardener. Last year it was Spic-o-rama, John Leguizamo's account of his unusual life as a gay kid from the barrio, expertly enacted by Richard Trujillo, another talented local actor.

The Tomlin piece is a string of character sketches tailored for her particular talents, and the others are scripts that could arguably be read by anyone, since they're Everyman stories by largely unknown writers (neither Najimi nor Gaffney was known when Show became a hit, and Leguizamo's name is hardly a household word). But there's something unsettling about watching an actor read a first-person account of someone else's life when that someone else is a celebrated monologist whom most of us have seen on film or in person. And the difference between playing a famous person and reading his first-person essays is vast.

Gray's Anatomy concerns the writer/actor's battle with something called a macula pucker, an idiopathic retinal condition that's causing him to go blind in one eye. Unwilling to undergo surgery, he ditches his ophthalmologist and heads out in search of "alternative healing." His screwball quest leads him to a Native American sweat lodge in Minnesota, where he calls on his ancestors, all of them Pilgrims (and therefore Indian killers), to heal him. He visits a wacko New Jersey "nutritional ophthalmologist," who gives him gas, and finally a Filipino "psychic surgeon" who performs phony operations on a stage in a renovated disco in Manila. All of this leads to a vaguely maudlin huzzah, but then Gray is no moralist, and his stories are never about getting there but about what we hear along the way.

The most engaging stretch involves Gray guessing at possible causes of his condition. He wonders if his own self-absorption -- a career spent writing about "I, I, I, I . . ." -- is to blame for his eye trouble. He sneers at his more evolved friends, the ones who hang in Sedona: "They kept asking me, What is it that you don't want to see?'" And he opines that recent writings about his mother's suicide might be to blame: "I felt I had never properly grieved for her, or mourned her, and what had happened was my left eye just cried in a big way. It just exploded into one big tear from reading that painful section of the book over and over again. The entire vitreous humor just wept."

It's this kind of psyche plundering, this Spalding-specific storytelling technique, that makes Gray's material so uniquely his own. His stories bristle with bravado and self-obsession and with endless references to his own life -- his wife, his film career, his best-known writings. There's something disingenuous in a famous man's monologue about himself when it's performed by someone else, and it's hard not to feel cheated when Gentry keeps referring to himself as "Spalding" when he isn't necessarily playing the famous monologist in Gray's self-penned autobiography.

There's the rub: Gentry isn't Spalding Gray. The actor doesn't attempt Grayisms; he's not trying to convince us that he's the guy from Monster in a Box or Beaches. And because Gray forms his monologues around his peculiar compulsions, there's something less real in hearing them read by an actor who isn't Gray. That's a point further muddied by the fact that many of us have come to know the quirky work of the gifted Gentry, who's as close to a stage celebrity as one will find in our town. And so we're left with an amusing but less intimate performance; left with the feeling that we've gone to see Spalding Gray and ended up seeing his supertalented understudy.

Which isn't to say that the Gray's Anatomy at Herberger isn't a worthwhile entertainment. It's lovingly crafted by a team of crack technicians, and unspooled satisfyingly by Gentry, a talented actor who can play, as they used to say, everything from giants to children. But it's got me wondering what this trend will spin out into. Will we next year be treated to Kathy Fitzgerald reading Elaine Stritch: At Liberty? Katie McFadzen as Cornelia Otis Skinner? John Sankovich as Bea Arthur in And Then There's Bea?

In the meantime, this edition of Gray's Anatomy will play best to audiences who don't know Gray's work or who don't care about the specificity of his writing. Gentry's fans will be pleased to have him all to themselves for 90 uninterrupted minutes. The rest of us will have to squint and perhaps pretend that the master of the monologue is here with us, and that it's just our impaired vision that makes him seem so very much like Jon Gentry.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela