What can you say about Spalding Gray that he hasn’t already said?
Mr. Gray is the grand master of the first person singular, a performer who has turned self-absorption into a cottage industry. His is a take-it-or-leave-it sort of act; you’re either charmed by him as he sits at his now-familiar pine table with his glass of water and his spiral-bound journal, riffing on his fixations and compulsions, or you’re baffled. He’s that fellow at the party who convulses half the guests and leaves the other half muttering, “Why are that man’s neuroses any more interesting than mine?”
Well, for one thing, it’s his way with words. In catching Mr. Gray in person for the first time in his long career as a monologuist -- 15 solo pieces since 1979 -- what’s striking is the precision of his prose. He calls himself a poetic journalist, but linguistic miniaturist would suit just as well.
When he talks about being hypnotized by the face of his infant son, his description of the baby’s “non-agenda eyes” at once captures something basic about the spirit of a brand-new life, and about Mr. Gray’s own suspicious nature. When he explains that he ordered a hamburger well done “to avoid E. coli,” it’s funny because he is not simply conveying his own paranoia, but also passing along a cogent reminder that America, right or wrong, is increasingly obsessed with uncovering health risks and posting warning labels.
Babies and burgers are among the topics touched on in Mr. Gray’s sly and engrossing new monologue, “It’s a Slippery Slope,” which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where he is performing on Sundays and Mondays to Jan. 6. In previous monologues, he tackled weighty subjects like the Vietnam War (“Swimming to Cambodia”), Hollywood (“Monster in a Box”) and illness (“Gray’s Anatomy”). This time, Mr. Gray’s focus is, at least outwardly, more serendipitous: learning to ski.
A dissertation on schussing and mogul-jumping might seem better suited to Picabo Street than to a self-described “ironic hypochondriac” who had never before succeeded in his lifelong dream of relaxing enough to enjoy a vacation. As it turns out, skiing is definitely a Gray area. In fact, negotiating a ski trail is an ideal metaphor for a great monologist’s art: a meandering journey with a few bumps, thrills and surprise turns. Above all, it should be an exhilarating ride.
Mr. Gray, in his plaid shirt and soothing radio voice, is hilarious on the vicissitudes of an occasional agoraphobe’s encounter with the great outdoors.
A New England Protestant, he spots other preppies on the slopes of Aspen, dressed in their pastel-colored parkas and looking “like Easter eggs.” “My people,” he says, “having a good time in the day!” His Woody Allenesque approach to the sport -- he at first chooses trails for the wimp factor in their names, like Dipsy Doodle and Pussyfoot -- will strike a chord in the timid heart of every rational ski coward.
But the 90-minute piece would not work if Mr. Gray stuck to the trail. Unlike the Southeast Asia he vividly illuminated in “Swimming to Cambodia,” which is not only his best-known work but also one of the few one-person shows that you would dare to describe as epic, the world of ski lessons is not enough to sustain a Gray monologue.
Of course, Mr. Gray realizes this better than anyone. Buried in the crevices of “It’s a Slippery Slope” are the deeper pains and consolations of his life over the last several years: the death of his father, the breakup of his relationship with his wife and collaborator, Renee Shafransky, and the birth of his first child, a son, by another woman.
To his credit, Mr. Gray exploits these events only as much as is absolutely necessary. (“Renee” is such a staple of the monologues that Mr. Gray’s loyal audience nods appreciatively at the mere mention of her name.) He makes clear that he was not that close to his father and stepmother (his mother committed suicide when she was 52) and that his behavior toward Ms. Shafransky was, well, not exemplary. Even more uncomfortably for the audience, he reveals just how completely uninterested in and unprepared he was for fatherhood. It is in his discussion of the awakening of his paternal instinct, eight months after the boy’s birth, that the divergent paths in Mr. Gray’s monologue and life converge.
Skiing is a liberation of one kind for Mr. Gray, a man so tormented by the fragility of life that he obsessively consults a manual that lists 2,740 human diseases because he is certain that he must be contracting at least one of them. Flying a bit recklessly down a snow-covered mountain, in the face of real danger, he is miraculously released from his imagined fears.
And then, confronted with the need to nurture a life much more fragile than his own, a tiny being of “pure consciousness,” Mr. Gray is taken out of himself again. “I felt our hearts,” he says of cradling his son, “and I thought, ’Oh yeah.’” In such moments, even the hyper-articulate are at a loss.
With a baby to distract him, the monologuist seems to have begun a dialogue. It’s a hopeful omen in a clear-eyed and life-affirming performance piece. (Maybe, too, it will inspire a gifted writer to come out of himself a little more and write a real play.) As a beginning skier, Mr. Gray observes, his rudimentary skills allowed him only to ski to the left. You leave the Vivian Beaumont wishing Mr. Gray even more luck in fatherhood than he had on the mountaintop, that with a child in his arms, life on level ground will all go right.
Spalding Gray’s latest monologue, “It’s a Slippery Slope,” maintains the standards he established in previous works including “Swimming to Cambodia,” “Monster in a Box” and “Gray’s Anatomy.” But in addition to demonstrating the same crazy humor as those pieces, “Slippery Slope” brings a new depth of feeling to important events in the author’s life.
The show (performed only on Sundays and Mondays) has much of the same format Gray used in previous performances, including the big bare desk, the clutch of note pages, and the familiar L.L. Bean garb. But when he rolls up his sleeves to begin work in this new monologue, Gray undergoes something of a sea change (actually, a ski change), announcing the end of one period in his life and the beginning of another.
Usually anxious and not athletically inclined, Gray reports on his whim to give skiing a try and the unexpected result of his becoming hooked on skis. The combination of snow and mountains has put him in touch with his WASP-ish New England roots, opening the door to changes of even greater significance.
As he describes it, in his ever-wonderful foggy voice, Gray seems to have taken to skis like a duck to water. He becomes enthralled with the sport and envisions himself skiing across America, planning a tour of his performances that will allow him to visit slope after slope from coast to coast. In one particular moment of glory he considers becoming a ski instructor and retiring the monologues.
Fortunately, he has not yet taken such a leap. Despite his new identity as a jock, Gray manages to elicit many good laughs out of the spills he takes along his learning curve (richly demonstrated without rising from his chair), as well as from his encounters with odd and ordinary ski folk (several of whom are the subject of his deft mimicry). One of the biggest laughs comes when, after a touching description of his first and last moment of bonding with his late father, he offers the absurdly less-than-happy reaction of his stepmother to this same story.
His father’s death is only one of the recent events in Gray’s life revealed in this piece. Others include the ending of the longterm relationship that had been a major subject of his previous monologues, and the beginning of a new relationship quite different from the old one.
Gray places these changes and others in the context of having reached the age at which his mother committed suicide. In passing that milestone, he seems to have found release from bonds that made him the endearing character whose antics have generated so much of the humor in his work.