A monologue by Spalding Gray is one of those unlikely pleasures like raw squid that I indulge in so infrequently that each time I have it I'm surprised all over again - first, that it's edible, then that it's actually tasty.
One-man shows of any sort generally strike me as questionable theatrical value for the money, but one-man shows with nothing in the way of production values? Delivered by an actor otherwise noted only for being invisible in minor roles in a few old movies? With a guarantee, for anyone over 5 feet tall, of nearly two hours of leg cramps in the Beaumont Theater's procrustrean seats?
But Spalding Gray is a law unto himself - a professional hypnotist who can entrance a large auditorium of listeners into pin-drop silence by telling them about the eye surgery he's just had to correct a condition called "macula pucker."
He begins with the first symptoms, then details diagnostic exams by two doctors and itemizes his every bead of sweat during the following months of avoidance, denial and "alternative" therapies. It is one long meander of hypochondria of the sort that in real life could turn brilliant raconteurs into social pariahs. Gray makes it a thing of enchantment.
With a delivery usually subdued and deadpan, with a minimum of mimicry (the mainstay of most one-man shows), with a script that has little obvious flash and sparkle, Gray turns in a performance that is droll and risible and - what most sets it apart from standard standup comedy - thoughtful in a way that is focused and steadily involving.
One by one, each of the alternate therapies that Gray is driven to by his fear of surgery takes him to a rogue's gallery of quacks and charlatans - a meanspirited Christian Science practitioner, a sweat lodge run by a New Age vamp, a truly grotesque nutritional ophthalmologist recommended by radio health guru Gary Null, and, for a grand finale, Pini Lopa, the Elvis Presley of Philippine psychic surgeons.
What does it all add up to? That is something Gray's audience will be thrashing out, obsessively, for the next week of post-mortems. The central abiding fascination of the Gray persona is that he is both the fool that is suckered into making pilgrimages to these various would-be healers as well as the eagle-eyed observer of all their foibles - and his own. Which makes him perhaps just the kind of fool we'd all like to be.
These people who go at us one on one, mano a mano, using our theaters as if they were their living rooms, build up a rather special relationship with the audience. We are invited to meet them not so much as characters, not really as actors, but actually as people. People-people.
And we find ourselves either liking them or disliking them. There's an odd personal chemistry working here. When I first encountered Spalding Gray I disliked him. He turned me off. He was too cocky, too modestly conceited.
Or so I thought. But I've grown accustomed to his shtick. I have come to like him. He's become my friend. Don't ask me why, don't ask me how. He amuses me. What I used to think was conceit, I now find beguiling, and everything he has to say I find fascinating. I hang on every word.
Mind you - in fairness to myself and my fickle chemistry - I always thought (at least I think I always thought) that he was a master storyteller.
Here he is telling the story of his own terrifying eye ailment and his eventual marriage to his longtime girlfriend, Renee (who also happens to be his longtime director, Renee Shafransky).
I'm sorry - forget I told you the last bit. Spalding would probably prefer to break the news himself. After all, it is his story, not to mention his livelihood.
Now, although I have grown to know (well, you know, feel I know) Spalding, I'm not entirely blind to my new friend's faults. He is garrulous. He goes on a bit. Sometimes a bit too long on the same bit - if you hear what I mean.
But frankly that's the way of a born storyteller. They grab you, and you can't get a word in edgewise for a couple of hours. And the stories are good.
I mean I was horrified by the medical details - such as "cystoid macula edema" - and Spalding's attempts to find alternative surgery and the like actually made my own eye hurt.
I had trouble with one of my eyes once - debris in the retina or something, and although I found myself a splendid eye-guy and it sorted itself out, boy, did I empathize with Spalding's stuff. Anyway, enough about me.
And almost enough about him. Except to say, do go visit, and go smartly, because he's only there on Sundays and Mondays and even then not for long. Oh! - did I remember to tell you where he is? It's the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. Find the Henry Moore and you can't miss it.
By the way, I think I have discovered why he's so interesting - Spalding, not Henry Moore. He's an absolutely wonderful actor. You can buy the text of the current show, "Gray's Anatomy" - did I remember to tell you it was called "Gray's Anatomy"? I forget - anyway they sell it at the theater.
And when you read it after, you can actually hear in your mind's ear Spalding talk. That's a test.
Like most people, Spalding Gray sees through two eyes. The problem, in the section of his life covered in his latest monologue, "Gray's Anatomy," is that these eyes no longer see in the same way. The left one, he learns, is afflicted with something called a macular pucker, which causes a blurring distortion of vision, like looking through "the bottom of a Coke bottle," he says. At one moment, covering one eye and then the other, he sees alternative versions of the world outside him: "Ecstasy. Despair," he chants as he shifts his hand. "Ecstasy. Despair."
In a sense, of course, Spalding Gray has always viewed the universe through at least two seemingly autonomous levels of perception. Mr. Gray has described himself as a "poetic journalist," and his particular skills as an observer have always hinged on a dialectic seesaw between satiric clarity and paranoiac murkiness. At one moment, he can create a portrait of, say, a doctor's office with searing journalistic detail. Then, like a mutating reality scene in a horror movie, things shift menacingly into a blur of arcane, incomprehensible images.
In this utterly involving piece at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, it seems appropriate when Mr. Gray announces that doubt is "my bottom line" to one of the many invisible interlocutors who hover, questioning and demanding, throughout the performance.
This one happens to be a waiter in the northern Philippines, where Mr. Gray has gone to seek out "the Elvis Presley" of mystic healers who practices there. It's curious, the waiter says, that Mr. Gray should always be saying "Oh God, oh God, oh God," as he works his way through a dozen beers; indeed, he seems to be praying all the time.
The scene, rendered with the admixture of wry detachment and truly felt retrospective despair that Mr. Gray can convey better than almost anyone else, captures the tug of war that shapes this beautifully shaped meditation on disease, aging and mortality. He may not be able to believe unconditionally in anything, but he certainly wants to.
And in this odyssey of an ailing man in search of faith, or magic, as he puts it, Mr. Gray sways gracefully between the skepticism of the clinical observer and the befuddled agony of the existential solipsist. The result is a rarefied exercise in levels of consciousness and perception that is more cogently of a piece and more emotionally moving than perhaps anything else Mr. Gray has done. And don't worry: it is also extremely funny.
Although "Gray's Anatomy" finds its narrator sticking closer to one linear story -- his quest for the cause and cure of his illness -- than he did in "Swimming to Cambodia" and "Monster in a Box," this quest allows him to take many wide-ranging excursions into the bizarre fringe territory he has staked out as his traditional turf. Most of these involve far-flung visits to doctors and more mystical healers and allow Mr. Gray to play his favorite role as an ironically ingenuous Candide in a world of everyday enchanters and charlatans.
The practitioners he consults include not only the Filipino healer (who really does dress like Elvis), who performs instant, spectacularly bloody surgery (without instruments) on a sheeplike multitude of Japanese pilgrims. There are the more conventional Manhattan specialists who spout incomprehensible technical-speak, which Mr. Gray delivers with a sinister, mechanical suaveness that evokes a figure from "Nineteen Eighty-Four"; the Christian Science practitioner (Mr. Gray was brought up as a Christian Scientist), who tells him, like a whiny lover in search of commitment, that he really can't treat him if "he's seeing anyone else"; and a hard-line nutritional ophthalmologist, an elfin man with bottle-thick glasses who lives in a house out of "Hansel and Gretel" in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
And then there is the Indian sweat lodge in Minnesota, where each of the participants is asked to offer up prayers before the healing can begin. Mr. Gray's prayer involves his hopes that he won't pollute the ceremony "with heady analysis and ironic commentary," turning the experience into "just another story I will try to sell to the American public."
Well, of course he has done just that, and we should be grateful he has. But even at his most sardonic, Mr. Gray never lets us forget the genuine hope and despair that has led him to these places and the universal nature of those feelings.
With perfect timing, he says, his eye seemed to begin to deteriorate the year he turned 50, at a moment when visions of mortality loomed larger than ever. He is told by his girlfriend's mother that he has arrived in "the Bermuda triangle" of health, a three-year period in which people either die or pass on to continued existence.
Not incidentally, the girlfriend, Renee Shafransky (who figures prominently in Gray's other monologues and has directed this one) was urging at the time that they finally marry. That, too, seemed to portend an ominous sense of closure. Husband and wife, he says, sounds "old and biblical." He goes on to pronounce a single word with withering finality: "wed-LOCK."
The vocal spin Mr. Gray puts on such words is in itself reason enough to attend this performance, rather than just buying its transcript, which is already available in bookstores. Just listen to the way he says "pucker," as in macular pucker, pronouncing it with a sour, exorcising fierceness. Or the manner in which, after he has described deciding to give up drinking, he depicts a day without a cocktail hour: in a sustained "AAAAAAA," his arm tracing the arc of a crashing plane, which trails off into one thudding word, "BED!"
As usual, Mr. Gray sits for his entire performance behind the familiar wooden desk with his green spiral notebook at hand. Shifting between comic deadpans that recall Jack Benny, expressionistic wails of a man spiraling out of control and the babel of diversely rendered voices of the many others through whom he seeks solutions, he varies his monologue in a marvel of modulated craftsmanship.
Yet the spectacle of Mr. Gray commenting on Mr. Gray -- which must now, since the fame that befell him in the wake of his films "Swimming to Cambodia" and "Monster in a Box," integrate his perception of other people's perceptions of Spalding Gray the star -- never seems the work of mere artifice. His greatest accomplishment is to keep both the pattern-making observer and the aching neurotic alive at the same time.
At one point, Mr. Gray comments on the difference between tricks, which are an imitation of magic, and the real thing. His performance, in which the studied comic presentation is never eclipsed by an ineffable, far-reaching emotional pull, finds true theatrical magic amid a barrage of skillfully arranged tricks.
Cambodia notwithstanding, the primary if unstated subject of Spalding Gray's monologues is always Gray himself, his obsessions, fascinations and wonderfully wry perspectives on all that touches him. It was only a matter of time -- this is his 14th monologue -- before he turned his microscope unflinchingly and unapologetically onto himself, and "Gray's Anatomy" proves as seductive as anything he's done.
Not that Gray, who set something of a modern standard for the art of monologue with "Swimming to Cambodia," takes any stylistic leaps here. His longtime director, Renee Shafransky, understandably chooses not to tinker with past success. The look is the same -- wooden table and chair, glass of water, pile of papers, old-fashioned desk microphone, spare lighting -- and the approach is just as recognizable. Gray remains an idiosyncratic blend of irony and amiability, fussy and disheveled at the same time, anxious and incisive yet reassuring in his humanity. With his buttery voice and snap timing, Gray is as polished a performer as he is a writer, a fact often overlooked in his deceptively simple presentation. In "Anatomy," Gray the comic actor is in top form.
Jumping point in the story is Gray's "macula pucker," a moderately serious eye condition requiring surgery. Ever the doomsayer, Gray decides to investigate every avenue of alternative medicine before he submits to the relatively minor operation that he convinces himself will lead to a glass eye.
His obsession with finding a risk-free cure takes him to an American Indian sweat lodge, a crackpot "nutritional ophthalmologist" and a Philippine con man known as the "Elvis Presley of psychic surgeons." Whether everything he says is literally true, artistic elaboration or a combination becomes beside the point: His always witty tale-telling, which takes the listener down any number of amusing side roads, is a world in itself, reflective of our own yet delightfully skewed.
As could be expected, there's an underlying purpose to all of Gray's navel contemplation. "Gray's Anatomy" is a travelogue of at least three different planes: the geographic, the physical and the spiritual. How Gray proceeds from the notion of minor surgery to contemplations on mortality and, in the end, a lovely reaffirmation of life is better observed than described, and well worth the observing.