Spalding Gray flat-out refuses to be interviewed by someone who’s never seen him perform.
“You saved me a lot of time,” his fancy-schmancy New York publicist unnecessarily informed me when I tried to set up a phoner. “He won’t talk to you.”
Well, never mind the bollocks. Pompous though he may be, Spalding Gray continues to be regarded as one of the consummate storytellers of our time. His acting credits include Roland Joffe’s Academy Award-winning The Killing Fields and David Byrne’s True Stories, and his most famous piece of writing is the Obie winner “Swimming to Cambodia” — about the making of The Killing Fields — which was turned into a Jonathan Demme-directed film of the same name. In 1977, Gray co-founded the New York experimental theater troupe the Wooster Group, and he recently appeared on Broadway in Gore Vidal’s political drama The Best Man.
But he remains best known for writing and performing his own brand of neurotic, autobiographical monologues. Gray brings his latest production, “Morning, Noon and Night” — which he first performed in Martha’s Vineyard three years ago — to UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium on Feb. 26.
For the past 30 years, the storyteller has disgorged the effusive monologues for which he is now famous — compulsively confessional tirades detailing their author’s obsessions and neuroses. Gray’s way is to pick a particular aspect of his life, dissect it under a verbal microscope, and serve it passionately to the masses (think a WASP Woody Allen).
“Morning,” like Gray’s previous collections of monologues, is composed of condensed oral excerpts from his diary. But this project is markedly different from his other work because, for once, Gray is not the sole focus of his obsessive introspections.
Much to the surprise of fans and critics, Gray has matured — and this narrative reveals a newfound fascination with family life. “Morning” documents a single, pleasurable day in October 1997, as the storyteller and his family float through the chaos of ordinary existence at their home in the tiny seaside village of Sag Harbor, N.Y.
It begins with the sun coming up over the Old Whalers Church and ends with Gray being kicked into sleep by his newborn son. Gray comes to fatherhood in his 50s (he has two children with his current wife, plus a stepdaughter). In this, he’s in good company: Other famous members of the old dads club include Paul Simon, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. But the prize goes to Odd Couple star Tony Randall, now in his 70s, who also sired a child in recent years.
Gray will turn 70 before his first-born turns 20. He must deal with the Terrible Twos, car-pooling and sex education — issues that most middle-aged parents have long since put behind them. But he embraces his new role as if he were the first person ever to encounter the trials of childcare. Caught fast in the relentless grip of parenting, Gray makes the (for him) profound discovery that raising three kids means that one completely disengages from world events:
“No wonder the U.S. government encourages large families,” he told a Daily News reporter.
Though the monologue’s main story line hangs on family dynamics, “Morning” is not all sweetness and light — naturally, Gray can’t resist clouding it with some of his dark existential musings. In the midst of detailing the daily hassles of fatherhood, he embraces the ever-unpopular issue of mortality when he goads his audience into admitting that, yes, everyone is going to die.
“America is a great denier of [death],” he told Tampa Tribune arts reporter Joanne Milani. “But in order to live fully, you have to acknowledge it.”