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Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Ain Gordon, Kathleen Chalfant, Hazelle Goodman,
and Frank Wood.
Photo by Richard Termine.

One's own life is never quite the same coming out of someone else's mouth; in fact, there's an entire school of playwrights who count on it. Whether Spalding Gray was among them is still open to debate even though he died, of apparent suicide, three years ago. In exploring deceptively colorful situations with rippling language and rhythms, Gray was one of our most uniquely gifted playwrights, even if his writing was basically limited to one character: himself, whom he also played in most everything he did.

Sooner or later, however, every role is recast, and the beloved monologist who so typified the warmly cynical Northeast mindset is no exception. Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell, now playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre, fleshes out this complex personality with five actors rather than just one, and by requiring them to read Gray rather than "become" him. A few bursts of static aside, one imagines Gray would be pleased with the results; given the care, detail, and just plain love in the show, it's hard not to be.

As conceived by Gray's widow, Kathleen Russo, and directed by Lucy Sexton, those five actors - Kathleen Chalfant, Hazelle Goodman, Ain Gordon, Frank Wood, and a ringer to be named later - adopt different facets of Gray's public and private personas to weave a biography as textured in voice as was the man himself. Whether the stories they spin are recited, intoned, rattled off, or acted out as elaborate one-person performance pieces (Goodman is the queen of that trick), they're all vivid building blocks of a life in words worth remembering.

Yet as those blocks have been stacked here, even minor ruminations feel inordinately significant. Chalfant brings a stately friskiness to Gray's tales of Love, while Goodman is all caffeinated bump-and-grind as his Adventure, and Frank Wood creates a serene aura of down-home simplicity with each reading of stories about Gray's Family; another aspect, Career, is essayed by a rotating star (I saw Fisher Stevens, but Estelle Parsons is up next). Taken together, these elements almost feel like a single, complete internal person, with only the outer container missing.

That's where Gordon comes in. Spending most of the show seated behind an unassuming wooden table, which holds little more than a microphone and a glass of water, Gordon tackles Gray's Journals and other private writings with much the same supple sonority the original brought to his own celebrated monologue work. Though in look and manner Gordon more resembles another theatrical soloist, Eric Bogosian, he's thoroughly successful in evoking the physical and vocal spirit of Gray, which is otherwise often sacrificed in favor of his writings' greater universality.

If there's a single overriding problem with Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell, that's it: the presentation and performances don't grant any particular new insights. Wood brings an attractive, unadorned honesty to his speeches; Chalfant has an ample supply of sly spice to season Gray's libidinous side; Goodman's got untethered, slithering energy to beat the band; and Stevens brings an unusually well-fitting air of show-biz razzle-dazzle to the show's more glittery moments. But it's all ornamentation, a way around the fact that Gray's harshly autobiographical works, like Sex and Death to Age 14 and Swimming to Cambodia, are now forever separated from their originator.

Kathleen Chalfant, Hazelle Goodman, Frank Wood,
and Ain Gordon.
Photo by Richard Termine.

Under those circumstances, it's something of a wonder this show is as entertaining and touching as it is, especially given Sexton's minimalist staging that moves the actors behind various microphones and doesn't do a lot else. That miracle can likely be attributed to Russo, who undoubtedly assured that this could never be anything other than a living love letter to Gray in his own words. But it doesn't cry out for more —even a celebration this low-key is a celebration nonetheless.

Regarding the set: David Korins has delivered a grandly theatrical shrug, replete with platforms, stacks upon stacks of composition notebooks, and dozens of individual pieces of paper assembled into a collage-like backdrop that suggest an inspired lack of inspiration. Everything looks like a concession to the fact that there's not really a way to make a conceit like this one visually stimulating. Then again, how much animation should be given to words made famous by a man who spent so much of his professional life seated behind a table? Luckily, the words themselves dance - and they don't have to work too hard to pull you along behind.

Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell
Through May 13
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane (Off of 6th Avenue between Bleecker and West 3rd Street)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

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