After the 1957 publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, generations of dreamy, disenfranchised or just plain bored young men (mostly) and women set out to trace his yearning and debauched path across the heart of America. Many even wrote passionately about their experiences, trying to emulate their Beat idols. Yet, despite valiant attempts, the end results often rang hollow. The moment had, simply, passed. Performer, playwright and college instructor Lián Amaris's hero is a more recent figure but no less worshiped in certain circles: the great monologuist Spalding Gray, who, after years of depression, committed suicide in 2004 by likely leaping from the Staten Island Ferry.
In the frequently insufferable Swimming to Spalding, Amaris loosely follows Gray’s “map of experience” through Thailand as described in his acclaimed 1987 film, Swimming to Cambodia. Exactly why Ms. Amaris undertakes this she never fully explains, but we get the distinct impression that, much as the Beat fans idolized Kerouac, Cassady and Ginsberg, she just really, really digs Spalding Gray.
Because in his exotic travels Gray sought out what he called “perfect moments,” so Ms. Amaris must seek hers, too. Gray witnessed an acrobatic girlie show in Patpong. Amaris and her traveling partner, Erin, must do the same. Amaris visits a brothel and even selects a female prostitute like Gray might have. She states that her “mission” is “to participate in this exchange.” Why, again, one wonders? This time we get an explanation—of sorts: “I had an ex-boyfriend who had spent some time as a self-loathing, woman-hating John, so I felt particularly compelled to put something in the world back in balance.” Um, ok.
Ms. Amaris’s homage includes using the same simple props Gray used: a table with microphone, a spiral notebook and a glass of water. Amaris throws in a bottle of Jack Daniels for effect and sits at the very same table Gray used to perform many of his monologues at P.S. 122. A central launching point of Ms. Amaris’ play, like Gray’s, is the legendary “Thai stick.” In Swimming to Cambodia Gray noted how marijuana disagreed with his innate fear and paranoia. Yet, ever hopeful, he decides one more time to try it, at the suggestion of a trusted friend. This time, he reasons, it may be different, and he might for once experience the bliss others describe.
A substantial and particularly hilarious part of Gray’s monologue details his crushed mind-altering hopes. Predictably — at least to his audience — a tremendous wave of anxiety washes over the charmingly neurotic Gray, resulting in horrifying hallucinations and physical illness. And as if that weren’t bad enough, he is scheduled to film his major scene in The Killing Fields the next morning. This is the reason he has come to Thailand in the first place.
Unfortunately, no similar moments exist in Ms. Amaris’s monologue. Whether based in fact or not, her workmanlike piece sounds invented, contrived and lacks anything like Gray’s formidable imagination, humor or wit. Amaris spends quite a bit of time convincing us how coolly true to Gray she is. Yet, instead of smoking the Thai stick, she fakes it. She doesn’t seem to realize the other hints of experiential and cultural fraudulence she carelessly drops. She goes to a girlie bar and “buys” a girl for the evening. Then, to symbolically right the collective wrong of sexual tourism, she decides to give the girl money to do whatever she wants for the night. Yet, the next evening, she and Erin wallow in the attentions of what she repeatedly calls “boy sushi” at a boy bar. At another bar, the pair make a (typically American) show of their relative affluence by buying beers for the ladyboy performers and delight in their exuberant thanks: “Okay, yes, it was extravagant, but since we weren’t renting any boys, what a show to buy all the boys a beer… the beer was cold, but the boys got hotter and hotter.” Privileged girls gone wild!
What could be an obviously more hip twenty-something story? Let’s see, up through this point we’ve got exotic travel, sex tourism, alcohol, marijuana (even if uninhaled), androgyny, and bisexuality. The only thing missing is a mental breakdown. Oh, wait, that comes later, when we find that Ms. Amaris has been involuntarily—and inexplicably—committed for 72 hours to a psychiatric facility. Yet, dang it, whip smart babe that she is (and frequently reminds us), she manages to get out in only 33 hours by outwitting her shrinks.
The best part of Amaris’s monologue occurs when it’s not all about her. She begins a brief relationship with a very troubled Iraqi War veteran she somehow has time to get to know during those 33 hours of psychotherapy. And, though we’ve heard many recent war-related horror stories (frankly, hers is a bit over-the-top, even by those standards), the last third of Swimming to Spalding finally begins to approach what Gray was trying to do in Swimming to Cambodia; that is, weave disparate personal (but not wholly self-absorbed) stories and life experiences into a cohesive narrative that resonates both politically and universally.
Unfortunately, Ms. Amaris loses that promising thread almost instantly and you realize that that was a lucky moment for her…maybe her play’s “perfect moment.” It’s back to her. She’s off to New Orleans for a conference and then back off to Thailand and you realize that this play really does not cohere—and won’t. More than pretentious, with its implicit condescension of its human material, Swimming to Spalding is, in the end, insulting. Despite competent direction by Richard Schechner, the production simply can’t shrug off the poseur quality of Amaris and her tale.
In parts of Swimming to Cambodia, one wonders if Mr. Gray would ever get out of the scrapes in which he finds himself: bouncing, unbelted, in a helicopter 1000 feet up for a quick scene after being promised that it would only rise ten; nearly drowning in untested waters in the Indian Ocean; or hallucinating on Thai sticks in a misguided search of his perfect moment. Danger, and not just personal danger, lurks all around. Yet, in Swimming to Spalding, we sense that Ms. Amaris is simply slumming for hopelessly derivative material. After her tale wraps up, we have no doubt that she’ll be back at her teaching position, fully in control, perhaps even by the very next morning.