In the spirit of his signature confessional monologues, Spalding Gray told a nearly full house at Sanders Theatre that not long ago, he thought he was out of stories. He expected to settle down in Long Island, a life-modifying venture that was the subject of his monologue “Morning, Noon and Night,” which premiered in 1999. The gonzo New Yorker had become a bona fide family man, raising four children with his present wife, Kathie Russo.
Gray appeared at Sanders last week for three performances of “Swimming to Cambodia.” He introduced his vintage monologue, which he began performing in 1982, with a new story that assured the audience – a range of fresh student faces and long-time fans – that a man who builds his reputation on telling stories can never “be all out.” It also cast a new perspective on the piece. It is as though recent experiences in his life are follow-up lessons to those he learned while making “The Killing Fields.” He seems to continually receive instruction on how to be made “more aware of the world outside the one [he] lived in.”
Last June, while on vacation in Ireland, Gray, his wife, and three other passengers were driving back to their hotel after an evening of casual revelry in celebration of his 60th birthday. A veterinarian’s van hurtled toward their car and derailed their plans, and, as Gray related, his life. Gray is still dealing with the effects of his injuries, which include sciatic nerve damage and a cracked hip bone. The sad evidence could be seen throughout the performance – his feet were constantly fidgeting and there were fleeting pauses as he suppressed bitter winces.
Gray told of his stay at an Irish hospital that fell not a few marks short of state of the art. Eccentric nurses regularly came around with silly surveys, a transvestite served tea, patients’ relatives arrived daily with blenders for daiquiri sessions, and morphine was self-administered. The audience’s hearty reaction cemented the comic’s uncanny capability to show the absurd levity that is inherent in calamity.
“Swimming to Cambodia” serves the same purpose. Gray’s monologue centers on his travels to southeast Asia to film Roland Joffe’s 1984 release “The Killing Fields.” The movie is based on the exploits of Sidney Schanberg, a New York Times journalist who went to Cambodia to cover America’s secret bombing of the country. Despite the risks, he remained as the Khmer Rouge savagely took over. Gray only had a minor part in the film, but that hardly put a damper on his mission to absorb every political detail of the saga. Staring deadpan into the audience, he merged a history lesson with political commentary and couched it all in a behind-the-scenes exposé of movie-making bloopers and triumphs. These episodes are especially outrageous when an actor is a stranger in a strange land, and even more so when that stranger is as familiar as Spalding Gray.