Forget a séance. The best way to resurrect a writer—as prodigiously argued by the respectfully rendered and intelligently incarnated new theater piece Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell—is to let his words speak for themselves. A relentless storyteller, explosive performer, and inveterate writer, Gray took his own life in 2004, two years after a car accident threatened his health and mired him in an unshakable depression. After his untimely death, his widow, Kathleen Russo, teamed with Lucy Sexton, a director known for her work at P.S. 122, to construct a collage of Gray's work for an intimate performance on what would have been his 65th birthday.
The benefit—culled from both Gray's published writing and his personal journals, letters, and informal scribbles—was met with unbridled enthusiasm, and Russo and Sexton decided to present the work to a wider audience. The Minetta Lane Theater is now home to what can only be called the Spalding Gray event—a heartwarming and heartbreaking evening of theater performed by five dynamic performers. More than a simple "greatest hits" collection, Stories Left to Tell is both eulogy and meditation—a loosely and gracefully constructed testament to Gray's eventful life and artistic legacy.
The five actors take on various aspects of Gray's experience—Love (Kathleen Chalfant), Adventure (Hazelle Goodman), Journals (Ain Gordon), Family (Frank Wood), and Career (Fisher Stevens at this performance; guest stars will rotate throughout the show's run). Perched atop, around, and among stacks of black-and-white composition notebooks (a Spalding Gray trademark prop), the actors seem to literally spring from his writing like animated figures in a pop-up book. Set designer David Korins takes this idea even further with his backdrop—a tapestry of handwritten pages that enigmatically absorb and deflect Ben Stanton's evocative lighting design. Lest we forget, Gray's writing holds this production firmly in place.
The performers take turns reading from Gray's work, and while they only intermittently respond to one another, they always listen attentively. Chronologically, the production is anchored by Gordon, who sits behind a table and reads directly, and intimately, into a microphone. This was Gray's classic oration style, and it's here that we return to connect with his most emotionally bare musings and observations.
Not that the rest of his writing isn't suffused with intimate details. Gordon is mirrored by Stevens, who plants himself behind a microphone to spin career-driven stories that are both darkly sardonic and richly humorous. The other actors are more mobile, as Chalfant touchingly reveals amorous epiphanies, Wood keenly renders fond—and fatal—family memories, and Goodman blazes her way through Gray's most intrepid encounters.
Together, the excerpts form a complex weaving of genre and subject that creates a stirring representation of an entire life span—wit, sadness, and grief move fluidly into one another like Christmas lights on a string (to borrow from Gray's reflection on the love he finds in his once broken but newly complete family):
"No, there was a new kind of love going around in this new family. It was so different from the one on one, the only love I'd known before. This love alternated like a chain of broken circuit Christmas lights. I loved Marissa for the way she loved her brother. I loved my son Forrest for the way he loved his mom, and turned her into a mother before I could, leaving me to know and love her for the woman she is."
That such an intimate and poignant discovery can coexist with a ribald tale of stage flatulence is testament to the breadth of Gray's observation and ingenuity. Whether slapstick or stirring, his writing has an immediacy and truthfulness that makes you want to grab a pen and take notes.
And this reactive appreciation is exactly what Russo and Sexton would wish; unlike many posthumous productions, Stories Left to Tell doesn't try to cram its material into a tidy box. Instead, this is an invitation to share in Gray's process of uncovering the drama of the everyday.
After a funeral, guests often return to a cozy living room where they reminisce about their lost loved one. This involuntary reflex serves to bring the deceased back to life, so much so that the person's presence fills the room. In the case of Spalding Gray, this audience seems exhilarated at the opportunity to convene with an old friend—welcomed into the warm glow of one man's life, learning, and legacy.