By Jesse Marx
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Credit a skiing accident and an affair for prompting Spalding Gray's most recent spasm of self-awareness. After years of carefully cataloguing, and then publicly airing, his collection of neuroses, fears, and intimate foibles in acclaimed works such as Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box, the monologuist had evolved, much to his dismay, into a "vicariant." At age 52 he could talk a good game about his life, but he wasn't living it.
It's a Slippery Slope, which Gray will perform at the Guthrie this weekend, is an apt title for a work that equates learning to downhill ski with tumbling headfirst into a new relationship and fatherhood. Gray approached these landmark events--and the crisis of conscience they prompted--with the aplomb of a novice who takes the lift to the top of the mountain after one lesson on the bunny slope. And somehow he's landed on his feet.
"This is a watershed monologue," enthuses Gray during a phone interview from his loft in New York. "I'm taking more responsibility for myself in saying, 'I did this,' rather than 'This happened to me.'" Part of the artist's newfound accountability has involved owning up to being a cad. His emotional wake-up call led to a liaison with a woman who is now the mother of his two children, signaling the end of a long relationship with partner and director Renee Shafransky.
"Renee" was a regular figure in Gray's stories and female fans have been quick to protest her betrayal, sending hate male to the performer. The significance of this phenomenon has not been lost on Gray, who has made his career off revealing his private experiences. "In my monologues in the past I've always treated the audience as mother and myself as very seductive, a cute and loveable teddy bear," he notes with characteristic openness. "Now that's less operative. I'm not working through the mother symbol of Renee. I try not to take the [criticism] personally. I'm quite aware of the mechanisms of the psyche."
Gray's love life has provided ample artistic fodder, but becoming a parent has predictably transformed his "me-centered" outlook altogether. "I never knew that change was possible at this encrusted late age. The children were such a shake-up in the sense of throwing me so much into the immediate, dealing with their enormous demands," he observes, adding that a forthcoming work, Morning, Noon and Night, will delve further into his new family life by describing a fictitious day at home in Sag Harbor, Long Island.
While Gray will deliver Slippery Slope from behind his trademark table, he will turn interactive at the Walker with Interviewing the Audience. After randomly selecting four people in the lobby prior to curtain, Gray will bring each on stage for a free-form dialogue. "There is no agenda. It's not a 12 Step program. It's simply a public conversation," he assures. Given the monologuist's recent changes, the exercise could also be a search for a kindred spirit.
"I like to pick someone who has come to terms with their place in life," explains Gray. "The reality of my life is no longer the hothouse flower resting his voice all day to do his best on stage. Now I'm skiing, sailing, rollerblading, and biking. I pay attention to the children and what they say. I'm still a vicariant, but a much more engaged one."