In Stories Left to Tell, Ain Gordon (l), Kathleen Chalfant, Hazelle Goodman and Frank Wood resurrect Spalding Grays life through his personal journals, letters and published work.
Spalding graces the stage again
By Jennifer DeMeritt
Before everybody and their tax accountant became a memoirist, Spalding Gray, the granddaddy of professional narcissists, was making a cottage industry from his private obsessions. His 1987 monologue movie Swimming to Cambodia made him famous and brought mainstream legitimacy to the work hed done live at the Performing Garage for years: sitting at a desk, telling stories about himself. Three years after his tragic suicide, Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell, which runs at the Minetta Lane Theater through May 13, gathers together unpublished letters, journal entries, and snippets from his published and produced work, shuffles them into chronological order, and presents his biography (or is it an autobiography?) as told by five well-known stage actors. Produced in cooperation with his estate, it reminds us why Spalding Gray was, and still is, the artist who defines the solo performer genre.
Spalding Grays best work is so wrapped up with his actual person Spalding Gray, in front of you, telling you what he thinks and feels, right now that presenting it without him seems incomplete. Yet Grays conspicuous absence in Stories Left to Tell ends up showcasing his craft as a writer, which we tend to forget when we think of Gray the performer. The set design reflects the centrality of writing in his work, with piles of composition notebooks stacked on the floor and a scrim of tacked-together sheets of paper across the rear of the stage.
Grays personal anecdotes, though delivered by other actors, still sparkle with his trademark mordant wit. The recollection of losing his virginity it was so traumatic I swore off sex for a year might be familiar to his fans, but its still damned funny, even when delivered by the distinguished and distinctly non-adolescent Kathleen Chalfant. Gray had a light hand with heavy material, and a knack for framing small-time, everyday dramas. The afternoon that Gray meets his eight-month-old son, who looks at him with eyes beyond innocence, captures the experience of parenthood with such vivid poignancy that even committed non-breeders in the audience can imagine it. When he and his taciturn father unexpectedly bond by saying oh shit, we feel the transcendence of the accidental, and the absurd.
Each actor in the show represents an area of Grays life: Kathleen Chalfant as love, Hazelle Goodman as adventure, Ain Gordon as his journals, Frank Wood as family, and guest performer Fisher Stevens as career (Josh Lucas has since assumed this role). Hazelle Goodman hams it up the most, with broad theatrical gestures and delightful physicality. Most of the time, though, the actors go Gray-style holding their notebooks and half-reading their monologues, as if theyre just talking and not acting. But they are acting, and their skill shows in the seeming effortlessness and transparency of their performances.
Some of the shows most fascinating moments explore Grays reasons for being a memoirist. Yes, this is doubly self-referential, but it reminds us why this genre matters. Art frames reality and Gray, with his obsessive introspection, made himself into a frame. At the end of the show, we get a rare glimpse of his last days, when depression and head injuries from a car crash stunted his creative life. My timing is off. Ive always had good timing, and its off, he laments through the mouth of Frank Wood. For a man who lived completely for his work, we can only assume that this and other symptoms of his damaged brain were as devastating as the loss of a limb to an athlete. These private recollections give specificity and reason to his suicide, which was widely publicized but dimly understood.
Grays life is best summed up in his own words: The most any of us can hope for is to occupy a few joyful moments and recognize them as such. Because Spalding Gray was so famous, and because contemporary theater is saturated with storytellers following in his footsteps, Stories Left to Tell doesnt deliver the shock of newness that his pioneering work did when he was alive. As a tribute, an inherently conservative genre, it doesnt need to. Rather, it gives his fans the sweet, uncomplicated pleasure of paging through a photo album and remembering those joyful moments, as well as funny and sad ones, which we definitely recognize as such.