Off-Broadway review - This production transferred to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre on January 21, 1991.
To hear him tell it -- and we do, for 90 delicious minutes -- Spalding Gray was starting to worry that he might be pandering to the audience with his autobiographical monologues. "Swimming to Cambodia," his soliloquy about his adventures as an actor in the movie "The Killing Fields," was so successful on stage that Jonathan Demme adapted it into a hit film. Mr. Gray's answering machine was soon clogged with show-biz offers, with everyone from the Mark Taper Forum to HBO to Creative Artists Agency ("the Mafia of talent agencies") on the prowl. Maybe it was time to escape. Should he get away from his "self-deprecating, ironic voice" and look for a Jimmy Stewart role "with heart"? Should he stop performing altogether and write a book?
"Monster in a Box," Mr. Gray's 13th and latest stage monologue, tells of how he sort of found that role and sort of wrote that book while enduring countless interruptions. The "monster" -- one of the few props he requires on the bare stage of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center -- is his manuscript, a novel called "Impossible Vacation" about "a New England puritan" named Brewster North who has trouble enjoying vacations. The "box" is the corrugated cardboard box that contains the monster, which was "due to be published by Knopf two years ago." Mr. Gray explains that he was inspired to write by the example of Thomas Wolfe, and judging from the imposing size of his manuscript, which makes even the Manhattan phone directory look wimpy, one assumes that Knopf will have to unearth Maxwell Perkins to edit it. In the meantime, Mr. Gray performs the airtight "Monster in a Box," which he describes in the program as a piece "about the dizziness that comes from too much possibility" and which he describes from the stage as a "monologue about a man who can't write a book about a man who can't take a vacation."
Whatever happens with Mr. Gray's book, or, for that matter, with his vacations, there can be no doubt that "Monster in a Box" is a triumph for him as both writer and performer. Despite the addition of a director -- Renee Shafransky, the companion who frequently turns up in his tales -- he still addresses us informally from behind a table, on which sit a spiral notebook, a glass of water and a microphone. As always, his talk is a mixture of personal confession, journalistic observation, sermon and digression. There are stories within stories, anecdotes within anecdotes and jokes within jokes, yet the whole sprawling narrative eventually comes full circle to fall into the same effortless unity that distinguished "Swimming to Cambodia" from its predecessors. "Monster in a Box" is a play, not a comedian's routine or improvisation, though it is a play probably best performed by its author, a silver-haired master of deadpan with a WASP's Rhode Island accent.
Not every actor can accomplish what Mr. Gray does here, which is to whip an audience abruptly yet gently from offhand reflections about his mother's suicide (a perennial Gray subject, at least as far back as "Rumstick Road") to hilarious memories of his life in the theater. Such juxtapositions are central to Mr. Gray's particular humor and vision of the world; only in "Monster in a Box" could one hope to find links between the MacDowell Colony and "Psycho," between "The World of Sholom Aleichem" and flatulence, between Pilot Pens and a Soviet film festival attended by Richard Gere and Daryl Hannah. Little is off-limits. "Monster in a Box" may be the first play to make fun of low-risk heterosexual men whipping themselves into a frenzy of self-indulgent hypochondria about AIDS.
Though a few of Mr. Gray's observations about well-worn subjects (psychoanalysis and sun-dried Hollywood lunch menus) are tired, even they are redeemed by the freshness of their context. In the several years covered by this installment of Mr. Gray's perpetual Bildungsroman, our hero encounters everyone from a Nicaraguan nun to Charles Manson's lawyer to the anonymous Cambodian refugees and elderly shut-ins he tracks down while conducting a search for those citizens of Los Angeles who have yet to write a screenplay. Mr. Gray's most unforgettable character, however, is still himself, though the identity of that self remains open to question.
Within the funny autobiographical tales lies a poignant drama, and just the one that Mr. Gray promises at the evening's outset. Here is a man who is trying "to relate" to others in a "nonperformance mode," to discover what is authentic beneath the armor of his role as a theatricalized commodity known as Spalding Gray. The search for the man under the pose leads him not only into therapy and fiction writing but also to accepting the part of the Stage Manager in the recent Broadway revival of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," directed by Gregory Mosher. After first resisting the offer and suggesting Garrison Keillor for the assigment, Mr. Gray comes to see the play as his own Tibetan Book of the Dead, as a touchstone for getting back to his own roots as a child of New England and the son of a troubled mother. (Surely Brewster North, the hero of Mr. Gray's suspended novel, is as much an allusion to a Wilder character name as it is to a railroad station.) In "Our Town," Mr. Gray decides, "I could speak from the heart if I could memorize those lines."
He did memorize the lines, and the payoff for his hard work was terrible reviews. In "Monster in a Box," Mr. Gray recounts the experience of his Broadway opening and its aftermath with a Twain-like sense of absurdity that made even the author of one of those unflattering reviews laugh until he cried. To refute his critics, Mr. Gray finally slips back into Wilder again, reciting once more the lines he proudly memorized. And once more he seems too boxed into the role of Spalding Gray, too much of an edgy, contemporary urban ironist, to pass for an inhabitant of Grovers Corners.
So maybe the more homespun Garrison Keillor would have been a better casting choice after all for the Stage Manager for "Our Town." As a stage manager for our town, Mr. Gray is right now without peer.