One Final Monologue

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

With the holidays and the year end upon us, it's that time again when we look back out our lives and creative some kind narrative; was it a good year? A bad year? A year of "personal growth?" For monologist Spalding Gray, this personal storytelling wasn't a once a year thing; he made a career out of it.

And now, director Steven Soderbergh's captures that career and the artistic life of Spalding Gray in a new documentary called Everything Is Going Fine.

I know. I know, it's not theater - it's a film. And I'm the theater guy. But it's a documentary about the theater, and it's remarkably like catching one of Gray's brilliant monologues on stage...and then being invited behind the curtain to see how it all works.

Most people know Spalding Gray's work through the film of his theater piece Swimming to Cambodia - long time Los Angeles theater-goers may have caught the original at Taper, Too in 1985. Gray didn't invent the autobiographical solo show, but for almost 30 years he honed the form to a unique personal essence. His monologues, like a classic recipe, all contained the same basic ingredients: a desk, a microphone, a spiral notebook, a glass of water, and the remarkably personal stories and anecdotes of his wonderfully neurotic mind. But with these simple elements Gray used his own mind and his own experiences to tap into the most basic artistic questions: how do we deal with the chaos around us? How do we make sense of the world? Where do we find meaning?

Steven Soderbergh's film is an exceptional bit of editing and storytelling. Like Spalding Gray monologues, the subject of the film is the life and work of Spalding Gray. And like his monologues, the only performer is Spalding Gray. The film is the boiled down essence of over 120 hours of archival footage of Gray's performances and interviews. Without awkward voice-overs or on-screen captions, Soderbergh and editor Susan Littenberg create a roughly chronological narrative that condenses 30 years of material into a taut 90 minutes.

What's intentionally missing from the film is Spalding Gray's final act: in January 2004, Gray disappeared from his Long Island home and was declared missing for two months until his body was discovered in the East River after apparently having jumped off the Staten Island Ferry.

There is no mention of Gray's eventual suicide in the film, just a fade to white at the end. But every frame of the film silently asks the question "why." In the film, Gray speaks candidly about his own mother's suicide and his own suicidal fantasies. It's an appropriate Brechtian twist that you can't help watching the film for clues to the ending you already know.

But the documentary's real power comes not from the voyeuristic window into Gray's sad demise but from the insights into his artistic process. It's the rare chance to hear a great theater artist share his life and work and a chance to see one last Spalding Gray monologue.

Everything Is Going Fine is in limited theatrical release and is available on-demand on cable starting December 22.

For info on the film text the word "curtain" to 69866.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.