Swimming to Spalding
nytheatre.com review by Kristin Skye Hoffmann
December 4, 2009
On a pure white playing space sits a single wooden table and a chair. A notebook sits atop it, and based on the title of the play, Swimming to Spalding, it is evident that I am in store for an homage to Spalding Gray's signature style of single-performer theatre. Opposite the table is a small white desk where our guide, writer/performer Lian Amaris, sits. Her stage manager pours her a shot of Jack Daniels and the play begins.
Amaris has ventured to Thailand for three weeks to walk in the footsteps of Spalding Gray to see how and if their paths might complement one another. She tells us of her trip with clear admiration for Gray and it is apparent that she wants to have experiences like he had. She plans out everything and has some remarkable moments, yet somehow her trip doesn't really seem to deserve an entire play dedicated to it.
There is no question that Amaris is an intelligent young woman. Her performance is very academic and remarkably cold, peppered throughout with wry takes to the audience. It is borderline pretentious throughout, with stories of buying a Thai prostitute one night to do whatever she wants, uncomfortably smoking marijuana with locals, and a profound five seconds with a tiger in a zoo.
What Amaris is lacking in her performance is heart. She tells of a variety of potentially life-changing experiences but they don't seem to affect her at all. She also jumps around quite a bit in her tale. At one point we are suddenly moved to a mental asylum where Amaris meets one of three soldiers she dates, and there is brief mention of a suicide attempt. But the transition was jerky and made for a very confusing and unnecessary chunk of her show.
The staging is done very well. Director Richard Schechner has guided her physicality beautifully but that alone cannot save a performance. It could be that the duo are both too close to the subject matter. Schechner worked with Spalding Gray himself years ago, and as for Amaris, performing one's own words is a tricky beast. Perhaps with a couple of rewrites, cuts, and a fresh pair of eyes during the rehearsal process, something genuine could be salvaged, but as it stands, Swimming to Spalding left me wondering why this story was important.