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It's Not Easy Being Gray

Spalding Gray brings his Anatomy and memories back to Houston

The last time Spalding Gray was in town, two years ago, he talked to the Press about his fears that he would one day die in Houston. "That whole karma thing" is how he recalled that notion during a recent phone interview in anticipation of his April 15 return, on his Gray's Anatomy tour. Back in 1967, even though he knew his mother was entering a critical phase in her mental illness, Gray left her to take an acting job here at the Alley. His Alley career flopped, his mother committed suicide, and to hear Gray tell it, his life as a performer almost withered on the vine.

Two years ago, a storm was raging as Gray boarded his L.A.-bound plane at Intercontinental. He was 52 then, "the same age as Mother [when she died]," and as Gray looked out the plane window to the flashing lightning, and word came over the intercom that (as Gray recalls it) "we got a real Texas bloomer here," he was certain that was his last day. "I should have taken drugs that day," he says now, in his slightly annoyed, deadpan voice.

Since the subject of his new monologue is mortality and the deterioration of his body, his morbid outlook on Houston makes our city a particularly apt stage for his musings.

Gray's Anatomy begins with Gray's realization that his left eye has crapped out on him, and his fears of what that might imply. If you're familiar with the workings of Gray's mind, you won't be surprised to learn that he immediately fears the worst -- "a brain tumor," as he says in the print version of the monologue. Nor will you be surprised to learn that Gray's response to his physical problem and his fears is both highly idiosyncratic and painfully funny.

Always tempted by the possibility of a return to the womb, Gray remembers his Christian Science childhood and calls a practitioner to pray away his eye problem, "a macula pucker." Imagine the fun-filled anxiety Gray will have with those two strange words.

When the Christian Scientist informs Gray that he must give up his Chinese doctor and rely strictly on prayer, Gray remembers why he left Christian Science in the first place and embarks on a journey of healing. Needless to say, the Mayo Clinic is not on his itinerary. Instead he seeks out, in turn: an American Indian sweat lodge; Dr. Axe, a nutritional ophthalmologist who tells him to eat only raw vegetables and examines him in a contraption Gray calls "the electric chair"; and a Filipino mystic known as "the Elvis Presley of faith healers."

This is Gray's strongest material since Swimming to Cambodia, and in his mind, it's the most universal piece he's ever done.

"Very few people have ever made a film in Thailand [as he did in The Killing Fields, which inspired Swimming to Cambodia], but everyone is afraid of getting sick."

For that reason, "this monologue is a classic. I could play it for years," even though he currently plans to retire it in August.

This time his quest "is both metaphysical and typical," says Gray. "The search for a doctor is so primitive. There is literally no science."

Gray isn't sure what he'll do next. He says his private life "has become too personal" -- filled with secrets too deep to be converted into a soul-baring monologue. When I remind him that he said the same thing two years ago, he responds, "I'm serious this time!" To be fair, the material in Gray's Anatomy is taken from a period before the apparent ultra-sensitivity of his current life.

Gray continues to act in movies, though he says film isn't as satisfying as monologues. "In film," he explains, "the ultimate goal is celluloid. The ultimate goal is to destroy me and convert me into an image. All you're taking is my aura." He recalls recently filming a scene with Patricia Arquette in which she has rejected his advances and walks away, leaving him to utter his closing line "to the bar." But "I couldn't notplay to the camera. She was gone. Who else did I have to talk to?"

He doesn't plan to write fiction again. His novel, Impossible Vacation, was not particularly successful, and he suffers an uneasy relationship with this medium as well. "John Updike uses the same words as I do: 'the,' 'and,' 'of.' There's no getting around it, even though the books themselves might be very different."

"I'm fueled not by what could have happened. That's fiction," Gray says. Instead, he's interested in re-creating reality, in going back and selecting his truths from what really happened. "Memory," he says, "is a creative act."

It is uniquely Gray's creative act, and his monologues push that creativity to the limit. His monologues are inspired by memory, but they are total performance.

"They [the audience] don't know I'm acting. But I do make discoveries in front of the audience, and they sense this. Then the next night I play it as if I'm still making a 'discovery.' "

Finally, Gray refers to the very public state of his mental health. In a previous monologue he spoke at length of his Freudian Auschwitz-survivor of a therapist. Now Gray feels betrayed by the man, who recently died.

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