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Gray Matter

Monologist doesn't do small talk

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Extracting off-the-cuff musings from spoken word artist Spalding Gray is like pulling teeth ... from a mountain lion ... on a trampoline.

Mr. Gray, who will begin a four performance stint at TheatreWorks's Dwire Theatre next Thursday, is an artist known the world over for transforming his self-absorption and hypochondria into intense, detailed and routinely hilarious monologues. If you haven't seen his filmed performances, Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box and Gray's Anatomy, brace yourself for some highly verbal and entirely non-passive entertainment. They are intense and strangely lyrical journeys into the inner resources of a unique mind.

And yet, the man who talks about himself for a living was uninterested or perhaps even incapable of meeting this reporter halfway in the perfunctory reconnaissance for zingy quotes. Gray answers questions in short sentences, leading one to ponder what he might have been up to on the other end of the phone.

Here's a quick sample excerpted from a discussion about Gray's process of honing new monologues.

Indy: So I imagine your work is harder to isolate compared to, say, a stand up comic.

Gray: Right.

Indy: I mean, you couldn't really try out just one bit, you'd need to have someone's attention for a block of time.

Gray: Yeah. I can't do that.

That said, Spalding Gray has probably earned the right to opt out of the publicity industrial complex rigmarole. Particularly considering that in the last year and a half he's endured a broken hip, a fractured skull and a shattered sciatic nerve from a car crash while vacationing in Ireland in June 2001. And as a result of postSept. 11 depression, Gray made a fledgling suicide attempt this past October. None of this bodes well for an artist whose hypochondria and depression have sustained monologues of their own.

Gray's subject matter is deeply personal and perhaps unappealing if judged solely by a cursory description. Gray describes one of his monologues, It's A Slippery Slope, as "finding my balance on skis to overcome my midlife crisis, learning to ski at 51, and having my first child."

Morning, Noon and Night -- Friday and Sunday's monologue (March 7 and 9) -- chronicles a day in his life with his children at his former home in Sag Harbor, New York. "It's a very simple piece," Gray said.

While these synopses are light-years from high concept, their capacity to engage and entertain, like other natural wonders, seems to defy casual explanation. Gray manages to cram in so much observation and wit with juxtapositions of elocution and tempo that merely likening him to other autobiographical monologists isn't helpful.

Perhaps because we live in a culture whose primary form of mass entertainment rarely features a single image or sentence exceeding 12 seconds in duration, the most basic form of entertainment, verbal storytelling, seems like something of a novelty.

And even if Gray is not one for casual coffee talk, his one-way conversation will certainly provide sufficient fodder for several of your own.

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