In the summer of 2001, writer, actor and monologist Spalding Gray was driving home from his 60th birthday party when a minivan struck him in an accident so devastating it sent the car's engine flying into the passenger seat. Spalding's hip was broken, his right leg paralyzed, and a major nerve running from his back to his feet was ruptured, causing the toes on his right foot to drop down every time he lifted them to walk. After numerous days in the hospital it was discovered that his skull had been fractured, leading to the insertion of a metal plate that inexplicably shifted, causing his forehead to cave in. Several operations and dozens of prescription pills later, Gray returned to his career as a monologist. He would stand before an audience describing his life in blunt, honest detail with nothing but a black wall and dim lighting to illustrate his tales.
Actor and writer Michael Brandt expertly takes this same approach to storytelling in his beautifully poignant play A Spalding Gray Matter, currently playing at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Education Center.
Brandt survived a painful, near-death experience when he was misdiagnosed with a cold the day after his 33rd birthday. He endured severe back pain for days before returning to the hospital demanding X-rays. To his surprise, the X-rays showed a frightening amount of fluid in his left lung. Brandt was sent to intensive care, where doctors explained that the fluid caused his kidneys and liver to fail.
As the monologue progresses, Brandt occasionally breaks from his narrative to spotlight the chilling similarities between his own misfortune and Gray's. Both men were celebrating with their families shortly before they were admitted into intensive care. Both suffered through unforeseen medical complications, both survived difficult operations, both were forced to live several months in pain, and neither man ever felt the same afterward.
This is where Brandt hopes the parallels will end, for Gray committed suicide on March 8, 2004.
The fact that this is Brandt's story told by Michael Brandt to a room full of people who increasingly fall in love with his sharp, self-deprecating sense of humor makes this production an overwhelmingly emotional experience. While you are reassured that he sits before you alive and well, he darkly reminds you that Gray's life seemed fine the day he bade his family goodbye and later jumped off the Staten Island ferry.
Still, Brandt's tales of harrowing medical procedures are so funny and relatable that you cannot help but laugh at him the way the world once did at Spalding Gray. After all, who has not struggled with that annoying doctor's question: "How would you rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10?" And how many patients cannot look at their surgeons without wondering, "What if he sneezes while he is holding the scalpel?" And who doesn't worry about waking up from a routine surgery with one leg missing while the nurses chirp, "Sorry. Judgment call."
Everyone is scared of hospitals, everyone hates the helplessness of being in one, and everyone can relate to a horror story about them. In this way, everyone can relate to Brandt. With expressive blue eyes and a captivating charisma, he is the kind of guy anyone would want to sit next to at a dinner table. His likability is the play's greatest strength because he makes the audience care about him to the point where they genuinely want him to overcome his demons.
At the same time, Brandt forces the audience to consider their own demons. He stresses that surviving a traumatic experience is the easy part. The hard part is living with the memory of it, something Gray was unable to do.
Brandt asks, How do you return to life as if nothing has happened? How do you listen to a song on the radio without thinking of all the songs you thought you would never hear again? How do you call a friend without thinking of all the conversations you two might never have had?
When you leave the theater, stunned speechless and unsure about whether to laugh or cry, you may not be able to answer these questions. But you should sense that Brandt will pull through because he is too powerful an actor, too likable a guy, and too wonderful a storyteller to end up like Spalding Gray.