Stage Death

A year to the month before they pulled Spalding Gray's body from the East River, I saw Spalding Gray die. It happened on a stage in Houston.

The monologue and the man, ever hard to distinguish, had fused entirely. And vanished. All that was left was tragedy.

His show at the Wortham's Cullen Theater was "Interviewing the Audience," a work he often presented while the next monologue was gestating. He would bring members of the audience on stage, sit them down in a soft leather chair next to his and talk, as if they'd been invited over to Spalding's for tea. He'd ask questions, they'd respond, a dialogue would happen. He'd suggest they question him back. A new dialogue.

I'd seen "Interviewing the Audience" several times, and it had always been good theater. Instead of quietly spectating in the dark, the spectators spoke, and the stage lights shone directly on their experiences. Gray approached it with the assumption that people are funny, people are sad, people are full of theater. Guided by Gray's wit, they proved the theory true time and again.

I attended the Houston performance with a friend, Mike Neville. He and I are playwrights, and we found ourselves in Houston last year while studying with Edward Albee at the University of Houston. We were the only two writers in the class who were strangers to Texas. Mike comes from Milwaukee, I from Los Angeles. In addition to our foreignness, we shared an admiration for Spalding Gray. Having left our jobs and homes to go study with Albee in Houston, we were both broke, but at the last moment decided to get rush tickets and catch Spalding. We took seats high in the balcony.

The date of the performance was significant: March 21, 2003, a day after the United States had invaded Iraq. Gray began with a few spontaneous remarks about the war. His voice was strangely quiet, even for him. He sounded distant and weary. His words were barely political. Just wondering aloud, which is what he always did. Why is this administration so intent upon doing this? Lots of people are about to die: Why exactly is this happening? Questions a lot of us were asking ourselves at the time. He made a crack about Donald Rumsfeld, who is as easy and pleasurable a comic target as any figure in American political life since Nixon. Just ordinary wondering and musing.

But his audience was not of New York, or Chicago, or Austin, for that matter. This was Bush Country. And many of the good Republican Houstonians in the house began shouting and jeering, defending the war and its president, and objecting to any such talk goddammit during their night out at the theater.

"We're fighting for your freedom!"

"Love it or leave it!"

"We ain't here to listen to this!"

"Shut up and start the show!"

A number of the offended bolted for the exits, spouses and companions in tow. Antiwar advocates -- and there were quite a few -- shouted back at them. Not ten minutes after curtain, and all was mayhem. The unwitting instigator, the man on stage we had come to see, didn't seem to know what to do. He wasn't rattled so much as sad and confused. He looked like a man who, although his house was collapsing around him, lacked the will to leave his easy chair.

"Why are they leaving?" he asked us, sincerely, in the same distant tone.

Then the show began.

"Have you been following the war on TV?" he asked his first onstage visitor.

I don't recall the answer.

Gray responded back that he couldn't bear to watch it.

This infuriated some more among the audience.

He wondered aloud again, asking no one at all if war was necessary "just to get one man."

The house Republicans who remained joined the revolt. More jeering, more partisan bickering. People were leaving now in droves. Mike and I, from our vantage point high up and far away, watched in amazement as the seats emptied, the aisles filled, the chaos reigned below us.

By now, Gray seemed stunned. I had never seen such a thing at the theater, and I doubt he had, either. At least a quarter of his audience had walked out in protest, and he just sat up there alone, staring out at us. He looked scared, and otherwise vacant. He quit talking about the war. He quit talking entirely. For long stretches. He just sat, staring at us. And staring some more.

Someone mercifully broke the silence.

"Bring up the next guest!"

That was, after all, the concept of the show. And he clearly needed company up there.

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John Penner