Soloing Through the Gray Zone
If you were teaching a seminar on the history of American performance art, you just might build the whole course around the 20-year careers of Spalding Gray and Robbie McCauley. Coming out of experimental theater movements that broke down traditional dramatic narrative and stripped away fictional character to acknowledge the actor's presence and person, both emerged as solo performers, making pieces out of vital vexing questions. Given that Gray's centered on himself, and McCauley's on the meaning of race in the U.S., it's hardly surprising that today the distance between their work is as wide as America's income gap.
Of course, to divide their concerns so neatly is to miss much of what McCauley's edgy work has revealed so powerfully: that a black woman in America can't talk about herself without talking about race. A WASPy, well-to-do guy, on the other hand, can regale us for two decades with stories of his professional, familial, and sexual exploits without mentioning race even once. What if, I couldn't help wondering, seeing the latest works from each of these artists, Gray had to make a performance out of McCauley's material and McCauley had to make one out of Gray's?
Could Gray still sit, assured and at ease, behind a table with a microphone and simply talk, as if being at the center of the public's attention was where he always deserved to be? Or would he have to wander across the stage, as McCauley does, as if there's no secure place to settle down, no spot that feels authoritative? Would her fragmented, disjunctive associations take on tidy narrative shapes in his telling? McCauley's new piece, love and race in the united states revisited, begins with a reminiscence from childhood: a Fourth of July picnic in the 1950s South during which two of her aunts argued over whether it was appropriate for young Robbie to wear red shorts. But the performance soon jumps to other forms of address-a "professor of race" giving a lecture, a friend talking intimately about a romance that failed. Yet as McCauley ranges among anecdotes, declarations, historical information, and what she calls "more academic" remarks, the tacit questions embedded in the aunts' argument hover like the summer humidity: How does a black woman's sexuality get expressed and interpreted? Can she control it? Can she have romance untainted by the cultural assumptions layered onto her body? What kind of love is possible, and can it include white men?
These sorts of questions are too social, too political, too outside the precious self of Spalding Gray to stay inside the lines of his format. He'd have to stick with that picnic, and, if Morning, Noon, and Night is any indication, he'd use it as an anchoring image of his all-American boyhood (albeit with a mentally ill Christian Scientist mother) and move toward a contemporary parallel in which his new nuclear family is cozily intact and wrapped in the flag. That's essentially what he does in this astonishingly conservative new monologue, which follows a day in his life as a dad in his new Long Island home, replete with lawn mower.
In his last piece, It's a Slippery Slope, Gray recounted how he suffered as he cheated on his wife and got his new, 20-years-younger lover pregnant, and also learned to ski. Now, he has bought a house with that new lover, has fathered a second child with her, and is coping with the chaos and wonder of parenthood. "I have grown up at last!" this piece seems to crow-even at one point deriding the false family he once sought in a theater company. "Congratulate me! I'm responsible! I even help with the child care from time to time! Nominate me for the Nobel Prize!" He gets dewy-eyed when he drops his son at school and hears the kids singing "land of the Pilgrims' pride." (That's the part I most want to see in McCauley's version.)
Like all his monologues, this one, too, is filled with quirky humor, occasional self- scrutinizing insights, neurotic running gags, and vivid flashes of description. But Tolstoy was right. It's just not interesting. Indeed, most of the best lines are quotations from Gray's son, Forrest. ("Dad, how do flies celebrate?") So the world must be aright: Spalding Gray's kids also say the darndest things.
All this cornball happiness makes Gray's abiding dread seem disingenuous, even embarrassing. When Forrest asks for a scary story, Gray replies, "Look around you! This is a scary story." Gimme a break, one wants to scream at this man who barely seems to see his partner or his privilege. Of course, Gray can't possibly inhabit McCauley's theatrical world. He has woven himself into the comfy cocoon of the grand old narratives and no longer seems to have any interest in questioning them.
On the same bill with McCauley, Dawn Akemi Saito presents an hourlong piece called HA which combines choreography, text, and music to tell a fractured autobiographical tale of a truly scary family-she learns that her grandfather was a torturer in Japanese-occupied China. Saito moves beautifully, but the look-Ma-I'm-suffering righteousness is almost as hard to take as Gray's.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.