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With the aid of a notebook, a microphone, and a glass of water, Spalding Gray became famous by exposing his most personal thoughts and his life’s intimate details through monologues. His work was so inseparable from the man that it is nearly impossible to imagine what his stories would be without the self-deprecating and often profound figure behind the mic. But none of the five actors in “Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell,” performed at the Institute of Contemporary Art Thursday through Sunday, were Spalding Gray. A middle-aged woman, a man with a foreign accent, and the colorful ex-mayor of Providence Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci, Jr., all stepped in to read Gray’s words. Yet this physical disparity was inconsequential; Gray’s words retained their appeal, capturing his life with a familiar poignancy.
After a long struggle with depression exacerbated by injuries sustained from a car accident, Gray committed suicide in 2004. Kathleen Russo, Gray’s widow, compiled “Stories Left to Tell” in tribute to her deceased husband. Taking material from Gray’s more famous monologues as well as his never-before-performed journal entries, she was able to create a loosely chronological picture of his life.
The play started with a vignette inspired by his children and then circled back to Gray’s painfully funny stories of adolescence in a small Rhode Island town. Each actor performed monologues centered on a different thematic element of Gray’s life—his exploits, his sexual encounters, or his fatherly instincts. Four seasoned performers–-Josh Lefkowitz, Ain Gordon, David Cale and Alina Troyana—told stories from Gray’s personal life; each night, a different guest personality each night played the role of Gray grappling with fame. On Saturday night, Cianci joined the cast.
The actors themselves seemed to take secondary roles to Gray’s words. While the four regular actors spoke their lines with confidence, even the more hesitant recital of Cianci still possessed the power of Gray’s words, a testament to Gray’s power as a writer. And while each delivered lines marked by his own cadence (Cianci, for example, often stopped and looked pointedly at the audience to elicit laughter), it was clear that they represented one voice.
In many ways, the original design of Gray’s performances was preserved. The set consisted of three black platforms, some dark simple furniture on which the actors perched, and a simple backdrop that changed color as the monologues changed in tone and content. Each actor took turns reading Gray’s words from their black binder, occasionally moving around the set but never breaking out of character.
The actors resisted Gray’s minimalist aesthetic at times and tried to sensationalize Gray’s emotions, in the process rendering his measured words overly dramatic. In one such moment, Ain Gordon choked up while reading Gray’s journal entries detailing his slip into mental decline. Instead of successfully conveying the subtlety of Gray’s emotion, the effect was laughable.
As with any story with such a dark and well-known ending, “Stories Left to Tell” always ran the risk of being overdone, but Gray’s sense of humor grounded the play. In one monologue, Gray asks his aging father piercing questions like, “Do you have any regrets?” It is a heavy scene until Gray asks his final question: “Why was I the only one that wasn’t circumcised?” he asks. “You weren’t?” his father responds.
Gray took his craft seriously, but he looked at his life with a sense humor that kept him from crossing over into the melodramatic. “Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell” is a tribute to Gray the person, and more importantly, Gray the writer.
It is no small feat that the actors managed to keep the posthumous work funny and realistic, only occasionally bordering on the theatrical.
Ultimately, Gray’s story can only be told through his words, and it is these words that are the biggest character in the play. Gray says in his journal, “I came to know of my life through the telling of it,” and the audience was lucky enough to be afforded the same opportunity.
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