A Spalding Gray Matter
nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
May 5, 2006
My companion at Michael Brandt’s A Spalding Gray Matter, himself a Spalding Gray fanatic for many years, mentioned that he has a Google News Alert set up to send to his e-mail address any new content on the web mentioning the genre-defining solo performer who disappeared in New York in January 2004, and whose body was pulled from the East River the following March, his death believed to be a suicide. Ironically, almost every one of these websites, blogs, and news articles sent as a hit on the name"Spalding Gray" describes someone else’s work. "The performer’s very Spalding Gray-like monologue," a snippet might read, or "With personal candor reminiscent of Spalding Gray…" Brandt’s presentation deliberately offers an homage to the simplicity of Gray’s usual set-up: a table and chair, a notebook, a beverage, and a screen. Upon taking his seat, Brandt commences his journey through a near-terminal lung infection that he contracted and suffered in his hometown in Kansas, concurrent with Gray’s disappearance back home in New York.
Many intriguing touches to Brandt’s piece, overseen by director Ian Morgan, will be familiar to lovers of Gray’s monologues, and are testaments to Gray’s mastery of storytelling. The show uses lighting shifts, expertly designed by Jason Lyons, to change tones between sections describing his Alice in Wonderland-like journey through the outlandishness of the American health care system, and biographical musings about its parallels with Gray’s mental and physical health struggle. Above Brandt is a screen that he operates with a remote from time to time to display an illustration to his story, such as a lung x-ray, a dateline, or a drawing. Occasionally a sound effect by designer Matt Sherwin is woven in, such the whooshing of Brandt’s oxygen tank, effectively enveloping us in Brandt’s bizarre world of mysterious illness.
The appeal of Brandt’s story lies in the everyman helplessness that we all feel in the face of the human body’s frailties, and the ambiguities of care provided by this nation’s health system. Brandt’s story begins with a misdiagnosed cold that suddenly turns into pneumonia and a fluid-filled lung. It is still a mystery how this was caused. Once the lung condition is correctly diagnosed on his third visit to the local health clinic, he is forced to endure a morass of antibiotics and fluid-draining attempts, medical jargon, medical buffoonery (one doctor blames his lack of success at draining Brandt’s lung on fluid that was “hiding”), surgery, and any number of indignities, from being bathed by his father to carrying his draining lung fluid around with him at the hospital in a clear, briefcase-like container. He also discovers how lucky he is to have emerged from the misdiagnosis alive.
The awe of this inspires riveting, Gray-like scrutiny of the details of survival and recovery. Brandt uses sharp humor to expound on the ludicrousness of the hospital staff’s favorite question: On a scale of 1-10, how bad is your pain? On a more somber level, Brandt leaves a lasting impression when he demonstrates the vulnerable, hunched position he assumed for thoracocentesis—the insertion of a long needle through the back of the seated patient, to drain fluid from the lung.
Important details, though, seem to be missing about Brandt’s connection to Spalding Gray. After hearing an initial news report about Gray’s disappearance while healing at his home, Brandt becomes riveted to the news every day for an update, though there is little in Brandt’s story to suggest that he had a strong personal connection to Gray before his disappearance. His initial concern about the first news report is not even the event of Gray’s disappearance, but the absurdity of the label "monologist." "Are other actors 'dialogists'?", he wonders. Still, Brandt was clearly intrigued enough by Gray to begin research, as much of the show relates Gray’s tragic life story, including a debilitating, work-stopping car crash in Ireland in 2001, followed by depression and multiple suicide attempts. What was the inspiration for this research? What if it had been some other actor whom he was familiar with, but not passionately connected to? What was the eerie detail that hooked him hard onto Gray’s story, and made him more than just a headline to Brandt? If these connections are present in the evening with Brandt, they are subtle needles in the haystack of his own story, and they could use more attention to support the Spalding Gray angle of this piece.
This is not the first production of this show; Brandt previously performed it last year at breedingground production's Spring Fever Festival. Martin Denton’s review of that original production is linked above. Martin greatly appreciates Brandt’s caustic wit and harrowing story; I wholeheartedly concur. I loved a particularly witty remark Brandt makes about OxyContin, the highly addictive pain medication notorious for having had Rush Limbaugh amongst the many who weren’t able do without it. It is also notorious for causing constipation. Brandt dryly intones, "So if you always thought Rush Limbaugh was full of shit, well…"
Brandt’s own story, independent of Gray’s, is a fascinating one. Oddly enough, the Spalding Gray frame of the piece, though timely with his recent death, is perhaps its least compelling element. The story of Brandt’s illness has plenty on its own to make us think about mortality, medicine, and what we take for granted.