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The Man Who Walked Into the Sea

Channeling Spalding Gray: Smith, Wainright and Adams. (Photo by Max S. Gerber)

In April of 2003, monologist Spalding Gray walked into the sea at Bridgehampton, fully dressed, then walked back out again, disoriented. It was one in a series of despondent acts that were growing more severe in the wake of a debilitating traffic accident in 2001 that inflicted brain trauma, scarred his face and left one leg virtually immobilized.

The last time anybody saw him alive was January 10, 2004, when he took his kids to see the movie Big Fish in Manhattan. Gray wept after the film, which concerns a dying man’s relationship with his children. Later that day, Gray told his wife, Kathie Russo, that he was going to visit a friend. Instead, he appears to have taken a ride on the Staten Island Ferry and thrown himself overboard. On March 7, Gray’s body was pulled from the East River, an apparent suicide. (Gray’s mother committed suicide in 1967 at the age of 52.)

His death stunned legions of fans and admirers, even though his morbid depressions and suicide attempts following the car accident were well known, and the theme of mortality permeated his latest monologues.

In solo works such as Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, Gray’s Anatomy, It’s a Slippery Slope and A Personal History of the American Theater, Gray performed literary somersaults off a diving board erected by Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and sundry Beat poets. Sitting at a desk with a glass of water and a notebook, and sometimes improvising with the audience, Gray spun personal confessions and obsessions inside a global frame, so that his soliloquies were a blend of standup (or sitdown, in Gray’s case) and theology.

At Russo’s urging, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg declared June 5 — which would have been Gray’s 65th birthday — Spalding Gray Day. For that day, Russo and performance artist Lucy Sexton organized a performance of Leftover Stories to Tell, readings from Gray’s monologues and 200 journals that he’d kept since the early ’60s, and which Russo and Sexton had been developing in various workshops since November.

Leftover Stories comes to UCLA’s Ralph Freud Playhouse June 14-18. Speaking to the Weekly by phone from New York, Russo explained that she’s divided the core cast into The Father Figure, The Mother Figure, The Sex Guy, The Journal Reader, and The Adventurer (who gets himself into ludicrous situations while disguising himself as a synagogue cleaner, and, in another segment, in which he feels so contemptuous of the staff at Houston’s Alley Theater, goes on a diet of figs, wears no underwear and farts through the rehearsals). The West Coast core cast includes Tommy Tiernan, Roger Guenveur Smith, Teri Garr, Bob Holman and Ain Gordon, with guest appearances by Brooke Adams, Margaret Cho, Gina Gershon, Miranda July, Eric Stoltz, Alice Sebold, Tony Shalhoub and Loudon Wainwright.

The Weekly caught up with Roger Guenveur Smith, Brooke Adams and Loudon Wainwright at UCLA.

“I first met Spalding 10 or 15 years ago,” says singer-songwriter Wainwright. “People had been telling me I should see Spalding Gray, because his monologues reminded them of my songs, so I finally did see his work and was knocked out, and then it turns out we both had houses out at the end of Long Island, near Sag Harbor. We would socialize a bit.”

Actress-painter Adams, who played Madame Ranevskaya in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard for the Atlantic Theater Company last spring, says she knew Gray’s girlfriend, Renée Shafransky. (In the midst of an affair with Russo, Gray married Shafransky in an attempt to quell his life’s emotional tempests. That marriage collapsed after Shafransky learned Gray had fathered a child with Russo.) “I met him such a long time ago in New York,” says Adams. “I was just a fan. His persona, which is what made him so funny and touching, was so vulnerable. Everything he said had the same weight, the way he said it, like somebody saying hello to him.”

Adams asks if it’s true that after he married Russo, he stopped including Shafransky in his works.

“[Shafransky] wasn’t in them because she wasn’t in his life then,” Wainwright explains. “I don’t think it was purposeful. There was very little separation of church and state. It was just all out there.”

(Russo had remarked that after their two sons, Forrest and Theo, were born, Gray became very sensitive about including them in his pieces, about defining them in his art before they had the opportunity to define themselves in their lives.)

“Once in London, I went to see his show,” adds Wainwright. “We hung out, we went to his hotel room, he drank, which is something he liked to do. He just launched into this personal stuff, it was kind of shocking, two middle-aged guys in a hotel room, stuff I wouldn’t have talked about. It was a compulsion. You wanted to say, I don’t need to hear that, but he needed to tell me. In the setting of a monologue, it was controlled, it was rehearsed, but underlying was this need to get it out there. Because if he didn’t get it out, something horrible might happen.”

 

“Spalding was trying to redefine the art of performance,” says Smith. “What is performance? Is performance somebody sitting on a bus stop? Is it somebody going to a post office and saying You must find my certified package and going into a diatribe about why you can’t find my certified package? Is there a line between performance and what we find as reality? Spalding was pushing that boundary with this amazing dive into his psyche. I don’t know which side of cynicism it would be to say that his last act was his ultimate performance act, jumping off that ferry.”

According to Russo, before the car accident, Gray’s performances of his own writings had a curative effect. After the crash, his spiral of depression spun out of control.

“Nothing could save him,” she explained. “He did create a new work, Life Interrupted, but his mood wasn’t changing from it, and his performance style was not the same. He had to wear a brace on his leg, and Spalding was a very outdoorsy kind of guy. That fed into his depression.”

Russo also said that Gray underwent a six-hour operation that entailed removing hundreds of pieces of bone that were lodged in his brain, and whatever material they used to piece him together started to cave in, which required major cosmetic surgery.

“You can’t imagine what that does to an actor,” Russo said.

When none of the medications were abetting Gray’s depression, the doctors proposed electroshock therapy, which Russo first opposed, then acceded to, after the doctors suggested that without the treatment, Gray might have to be institutionalized.

“They did it, and it did nothing,” Russo said contemptuously. “Of course it did nothing for him because he had a titanium plate in his head.”

Just before he committed suicide, Gray was under the care of neurologist Oliver Sacks at NYU. “He was starting to come through it,” Russo said. But Sacks’ therapy never had a chance. Gray killed himself only six weeks into a five-year treatment.

Says Smith, “I directed a piece called Radio Mambo with Culture Clash. There was this crazy character named Charlie Cinnamon, played by Richard Montoya — Montoya’s on the phone yacking like a salesman, he says, ‘Just a minute hold on, Spalding Gray is in town with a new show, a new table.’ I’m proud that was my contribution.”

Leftover Stories to Tell, presented by UCLA Live! at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse, Wed.-Sat., June 14-17, 8 p.m.; Sun., June 18, 7 p.m. Cast varies. (310) 825-2101 or uclalive.org.

Charles L. Mee’s adaptation of Aeshylus’ Greek tragedy (the first in this theater’s season, called Three by Mee) concentrates, like Homer’s The Odyssey, on the impulses behind cruelty and war. This is the story of the eponymous general (Troy Dunn) upon his return from a 10-year military campaign to his wife, Clytemnestra (Marie-Françoise Theodore), who seethes that her husband sacrificed their daughter to the gods for favorable sea winds. Frederique Michel stages the play as a choreographed recitation, with a Greek chorus of what appear to be decapitated heads, one of which is a figurehead bust, bolted to the stem of a boat. Michel juxtaposes the violence of the words with, for her, an uncharacteristically gentle staging — as sensuous as it is disciplined in movement and tone, so that the barbaric epic unfolds with a blend of eroticism, religiosity and moments of ironic humor. This is one of the most rarefied and beautiful productions around, aided by shifting, projected images of ancient stone in Charles A. Duncombe’s production design, and recordings of Arvo Pärt’s haunting choral backdrops. City Garage, 1340½ Fourth St. (west alley), Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. (“pay what you can”), 5:30 p.m.; thru July 23. (310) 319-9939. See Stage feature next week.

—Steven Leigh Morris

GO DEMETER IN THE CITY Shishir Kurup directs Sarah Ruhl’s new play with music about mothers and daughters (lyrics by Ruhl, music by Kurup and David Markowitz) — a contemporary Southern California riff on the Greek myth of Demeter (Bahi Turpin) and Persephone (Sadé Moore). In the legend, the Devil (Sonny Valicenti) snatches Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, who becomes queen of the underworld. The tears from Demeter’s grief drown Thebes, until Zeus (Peter Howard) intercedes to negotiate a settlement. Ruhl’s heroin-addicted Demeter from Compton gets her baby girl snatched away by Child Services and, years later, by the devil in disguise as a Young Republican on a college campus, which itself hints at the play’s finger-pointing satire. The creators don’t do well weaving the threads of polemic, spoof, tragedy and docudrama, but even this overstuffed burger has an unexpected appeal, thanks in large part to some splendid performances and the disarmingly good-natured cooks in the kitchen. Cornerstone Theater Company at REDCAT, 631 W. Second St., dwntwn.; Wed.-Fri., 8:30 p.m.; Sat., 5 & 9 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; thru June 18. See Stage feature next week. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

GO THE TINA DANCE As a locus for innovative and often controversial performances, Highways doesn’t disappoint with Michael Kearns’ latest offering, a collectively written docudrama about the crystal methamphetamine crisis that focuses on true-to-life stories from the gay community. Declaring, “Crystal meth is officially out of the closet,” the “actors” in the piece play themselves (with a couple of exceptions) and detail their own dances with “tina” in a half-celebratory, half-revelatory style. While some of the darker, more serious vignettes are powerful, the piece shines most brightly in its comedic moments that are often more incisive, despite the laughter and farce. The climax of this style is in the personification of Tina (Ian MacKinnon), the “bitch goddess” who makes “Hurricane Katrina look like Mother Teresa.” MacKinnon, in a snakeskin dress with high heels, argyle socks, jelly bracelets and a teased blond wig interlaced with hypodermic needles and test tubes, often steals the show with his (her?) outrageous personality. Kearns’ direction emphasizes the communal aspect of the piece, and the entire cast gives strong performances. Particular standouts include Corey Saucier and Chris Rodriguez. The piece seems cathartic for both the performers and the audience in true “heal as you reveal” style. Highways East at Plummer Park, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd; Fri.-Sat., June 16 & 17, 8 p.m.; then at Space at Fountain’s End, 3929 Fountain Ave., Silver Lake; Sun., June 25, 4 p.m. (323) 856-6168. (Mayank Keshaviah)


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