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Move Over, Woody 

Spalding Gray

Wednesday, Jan 17 2001
Arguably the nation's arch memoirist, Spalding Gray was the king of confessional storytelling long before riffing on one's own life turned into a fad. In classic monologues, from the Obie Award--winning Swimming to Cambodia (a wide-roving tale that grew from his minor part in Roland Joffe's powerful film The Killing Fields) to Monster in a Box (a riotous account of not being able to write an outsized novel about not being able to take a vacation), Gray has riveted audiences just by talking about himself.

Though well rehearsed -- he is, after all, a seasoned professional on- and off-Broadway -- he seems to be freestyling onstage, with the verbal precision of a master rapper, cracking on the triumphs and travails of his personal odyssey. Rife with overwhelming anxieties and obsessions -- about everyday decision-making regarding career choices, relationships, and home ownership -- his theatrically magnified persona is hilarious. A New England version of Woody Allen's neurotic New York Jew, Gray's onstage character stems from his self-described "hard-core Freudian existentialist" perspective, his stories blooming from all the worrisome, contradictory complexities that come with the territory. Yet no matter how offbeat or outrageous the scenarios, his insecurities are our insecurities; his flannel-shirted everyman rings true.

Gray's latest monologue addresses yet another day in the life of our garrulous hero, only now he's getting up in age (56) and has a new family with three kids (11-year-old stepdaughter Marissa, baby Theo, and 5-year-old Forrest). Morning, Noon and Night recounts Gray's life, sunup to sleepytime, as a proud, if harried, father raising his little brood in Sag Harbor, a tiny town in eastern Long Island. Against the ordinary backdrop of joyful parenting -- a pleasant bike ride in the countryside, a philosophical walkabout with Forrest, the renting of a Barney video, helping with homework, cleaning up after dinner, group dancing in the living room, a disrupted love connection with his partner -- the writer/performer finds time to muse on more familiar ground: the dark side of intimacy.

As if reprising his PBS Great Performances role as the stage manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a wistful meditation on the living and the dead if ever there was one, Gray relates how his old Victorian abode is across the street from the township's graveyard. Naturally he introduces into the narrative a "disembodied voice of death" that emanates from the cemetery, adding a shadowy layer to an otherwise sunny portrait of the functional family. His observations are trenchant and timeless: "It's a fearful thing to love what can be touched by death."

But Gray's filial bonds, particularly with Forrest, ultimately fire the most important role of his life. The etymological-philosophical dialogues between father and son are priceless. Forrest explains to Gray the origins of words like "hotel": "It's because when the whole family gets to the hotel they all start laughing. They laugh, ho ho ho ho ho, and then they tell, Dad. They tell all about what happened on their way there. Get it, Dad? Ho-tell." Then Dad rants, incomprehensibly to the 5-year-old, about how "there are no bad words," expounding the difference between sign and signifier, using the word "shit" as his example. It's a strange, if exquisite, moment of earnest parenting. Whether you're there yet in your own life, you'll certainly enjoy the ride.

About The Author

Sam Prestianni


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