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The Incredible Shrinking Man

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.

Obviously, something more than the early mutiny was bothering him. Those of us who remained were on his side. Either we wondered the same things that he had about the war, or we didn’t object to such discussions in the theater, or both. But we were all past that now. We were ready to play Interviewing the Audience, but the interviewer wouldn’t, or couldn’t. Some of his onstage visitors, baffled by his inability to conduct the interview, took over. And there was only one subject anyone was interested in. It came shouted from the crowd:

“What’s wrong, Spalding?!”

He answered, some. He talked a bit about the car accident in Ireland in the fall of 2001, which recently has been detailed in accounts of his disappearance, and more recently, in his obituaries. That accident, we have come to learn, fractured his skull, crushed his hip, paralyzed his foot, and perhaps damaged his brain. Attempts at rehabilitation had been catastrophic. That night onstage, however, he only talked about the foot. He hobbled around to demonstrate.

“I can’t dance anymore,” he explained weakly.

What?

“I can’t dance anymore. With my kids. I can’t dance
with my kids.”

We understand, but . . .

“I can’t dance anymore.”

He said it over and over. For the rest of the night.

Why was the accident so horrible? Why are you so depressed tonight? Why can’t you snap out of it? What’s wrong, Spalding?

“I can’t dance anymore.”

 

He spoke a little about his family having recently moved from a house he loved in Sag Harbor to one he didn’t in North Haven. He blamed his wife for talking him into this. He made cryptic allusions to the Furies. Mentioned three women in his life who tormented him as the Furies had Orestes, though he never named his Furies. He asked his onstage visitors if they believed in ghosts, in Furies. He didn’t seem to hear their responses.

These were his only themes — the accident, he can’t dance anymore, why did they sell his house, the relentless Furies.

And it all led nowhere. Backwards, in fact. We were exploring neither him nor those he was supposed to be interviewing. He was lost and alone up there.

Spalding Gray had always been alone up there. That’s what Spalding Gray did. But he always had us, too. He was alone, often terribly alone, but we were with him alone. It worked beautifully for 25 years. Eighteen monologues.

This night there was no us. Just him alone.

The friendly audience that was left was slowly abandoning him, and he didn’t seem to care, or notice. The crowd was ever more unruly, like grade-schoolers taking advantage of the sub. People were again walking out, but now because they felt cheated. One of his visitors explained that she was a mother with young children, and on this her first night out in two months, she had come to see him. She wanted a show, she wanted theater. Who could blame her?

He only nodded.

Another woman, much older, whose intelligence and humor gave us respite from the unfolding tragedy, asked him if he’d had anything to drink. He answered, truthfully I think, that he never drinks before a show.

Then he talked about the accident again, and how he can’t dance anymore.

Then he was silent some more. For a long time. Again.

Several among the audience shouted that they wanted their money back.

Most of the seats were empty now.

From my place in the balcony, the theater looked enormous. It seemed to get bigger each minute. Each excruciating minute. He was receding. Spalding Gray had become a tiny man down there, dying alone on his stage.

I don’t recall the show ending exactly. Except that he bowed to us, as was his custom. This night, it was an absurd gesture.

Then he was gone.