By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
|Photo by AP/Wide World|
A year to the month before they pulled Spalding Gray’s body from the East River, I saw Spalding Gray die. It happened on a stage in Houston, Texas. The monologue and the man, ever hard to distinguish, had fused entirely. And vanished. All that was left was tragedy.
His show at Houston’s Cullen Theater was Interviewing the Audience, a work he often presented while the next monologue was gestating. He would bring members of the audience onstage, sit them down in a soft leather chair next to his, and talk, as if they’d been asked over to Spalding’s for tea. He’d ask questions, they’d respond, a dialogue would happen. He’d invite them to question him back. A new dialogue. I’d seen Interviewing the Audience several times, and it had always been good theater. But instead of the action onstage illuminating the experiences of spectators quietly spectating in the dark, the spectator spoke and the stage lights shone directly on their experiences. Gray approached it with the assumption that people are funny, people are sad, people are full of theater. Guided by Gray’s wit, in every sense of the noun, he proved the theory true time and again. On the occasion of the show in Houston, where I found myself living for a spell, I was broke, but at the last moment decided to get a rush ticket and catch Spalding. I took a seat high in the balcony.
The date of the performance was significant: March 21, 2003. A day after the U.S. had invaded Iraq. Gray began with a few spontaneous remarks about the war. His voice was strangely quiet, even for him. He sounded distant and weary. His words were barely political. Just wondering aloud, which is what he always did. Why is this administration so intent upon doing this? Lots of people are about to die: Why exactly is this happening? Questions a lot of us were asking ourselves at the time. He made a crack about Donald Rumsfeld, who is as easy and pleasurable a comic target as any figure in American political life since Nixon. Just ordinary wondering and musing.
But his audience was not of New York, or Los Angeles, or Austin for that matter. This was Bush Country. And many of the good Republican Houstonians in the house began shouting and jeering, defending the war and the president, and objecting to any such talk goddammit during their night out at the theater.
“We’re fighting for your freedom!”
“Love it or leave it!”
“We ain’t here to listen to this!”
“Shuddup and start the show!”
A number of the offended bolted for the exits, spouses and companions in tow. Anti-war advocates — and there were quite a few — shouted back at them. Not 10 minutes after curtain, and all was mayhem. The unwitting instigator, the man onstage we had come to see, didn’t seem to know what to do. He wasn’t rattled so much as sad and confused. He looked like a man whose house was collapsing around him but lacked the will to leave his easy chair.
“Why are they leaving?” he asked us, sincerely, in the same distant tone. Then the show began.
“Have you been following the war on TV?” he asked his first onstage visitor.
I don’t recall the answer.
Gray responded back that he couldn’t bear to watch it.
This infuriated some more among the audience. He wondered aloud again, asking no one at all if war was necessary “just to get one man.”
The house Republicans who remained joined the revolt. More jeering, more partisan bickering. People were leaving now in droves. From my vantage point high up and far away, I watched in amazement as the seats emptied, the aisles filled, the chaos reigned below.
By now, Gray seemed stunned. I had never seen such a thing at the theater, and I doubt he had, either. At least a quarter of his audience had walked out in protest, and he just sat up there alone, staring out at us. He looked scared, and otherwise vacant. He quit talking about the war. He quit talking entirely. For long stretches. He just sat, staring at us. And staring some more.
Someone mercifully broke the silence: “Bring up the next guest!”
That was, after all, the concept of the show. And he clearly needed company up there. With or without company, he was unable to perform. Spalding Gray was at a loss for words. A master at finding the theater in himself and others, he was now unable to carry a conversation.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?” he asked one man.
A response came, and Gray was silent. No follow-up, nothing about the man’s relationships with these siblings, no attempt to find the humor in anyone or anything. Aside from the early Rumsfeld crack, I don’t recall him attempting a joke all night.
“What do you do for a living?” was his next question.
That answer, too, was left to languish. After another silent stretch, the visitor asked if he should go now. Gray said he guessed so.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city