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Monologist Spalding Gray talks up fatherhood in "Morning, Noon and Night." 

A Brighter Shade of Gray

Why would you possibly want to listen to a guy spend 90 minutes telling you about his day? It sounds like some nightmare bus trip from hell, right? Well, if the guy happens to be Spalding Gray, it's no nightmare. In fact, critics who have seen his new monologue, "Morning, Noon and Night," have called it "luminous" and "exhilarating." And on Oct. 29, you will have a chance to decide for yourself when he brings it to Richmond to kick off this year's Fast/Forward series at the Virginia Museum.

The new monologue covers only a single day in Gray's life. But it's a day full of moments that define fatherhood for Gray: having a sexual interlude interrupted by a Tickle Me Elmo doll; losing a verbal sparring match with his preteen stepdaughter; and being kicked into sleep by his infant son.

In Gray's exploration of the ups and downs of family life, you can expect the same kind of ironic, self-mocking humor he is famous for. But in his latest work, Gray also shows a less anxious, more lighthearted side.

"I'm not getting soft," he says by phone from his Long Island home. "I'm just changing. I've become more loving in my life so you're going to see that in my work. I'm doing this one more directly, more simply from the heart."

Gray burst into the national consciousness in 1987 with Jonathan Demme's filmed version of the monologue, "Swimming to Cambodia," a rollicking, wryly comic account of his experiences while acting in Roland Joffe's "The Killing Fields." With "Swimming" and subsequent works such as "Monster in a Box" and "Gray's Anatomy," Gray essentially invented a new form of performance art that has been imitated frequently since, most prominently by Eric Bogosian.

But many people still don't quite understand Gray's work. The 58-year-old award-winning "theatrical diarist" still bristles when people assume he just gets up and rambles on about his life.

"When critics talk about me 'free associating' or call [one of my performances] a 'chat show,' it's such a misperception," says Gray. "I approach this like an actor. I'm playing a memory of myself; it's almost a character study. When I develop a monologue, it starts with memory and evolves organically. Then I shape the language with the help of a creative consultant [Paul Spencer]. By the time I perform it, it is a very worked-over thing; it's not just talking."

While his monologues have always been autobiographical, Gray is not interested in opening up his entire life for public consumption, particularly now that he has children (stepdaughter Marissa is now 13, and sons Forrest and Theo are 7 and 2 1/2 respectively). "I don't want to turn my family into an ongoing soap opera," he says. "It's very difficult to raise three kids at my age, so I've got to be there. I can't be out doing a show about them, I need to be there with them."

His children have seen his latest work, however, and Marissa and Forrest both reacted to the "Tickle Me Elmo" scene. Gray explains, "Marissa wanted me to cut it. It was Forrest's favorite scene, but he was talking about it later and I realized that he was giving me notes, correcting me." In the scene, Gray says that after Elmo interrupted them, his wife was laughing and his son was laughing, but he was not laughing, "because I can't laugh and maintain an erection at the same time. Forrest pointed out that Elmo was laughing, too, and he was right, so I put that line in."

As for future projects, Gray says he is craving a departure. "My next piece probably won't be about family. It may not be a monologue at all." In fact, he is currently developing a movie version of his last monologue, "It's a Slippery Slope," with director Roland Joffe.

Gray's trip to Richmond came together unexpectedly earlier this month when performance artist Danny Hoch canceled because of a movie deal. But though the trip was unanticipated, he is excited about coming here. "Richmond will be the perfect warm-up for New York," says Gray, who will open "Morning, Noon and Night" at Lincoln Center two days after playing here. "The Lincoln Center has 1,100 seats. It's difficult to get intimate with that many
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