MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. Spalding Gray and Eric Bogosian were well-known for their one-man shows: Bogosian's monologues were an acting tour de force. He'd portray a gallery of characters centered around a single theme. Spalding Gray wrote and performed pieces that can only be described as deep explorations of his own psyche. He'd tell his story simply from behind a desk with just a notebook and a glass of water. Gray took his own life in 2004.
This week, two shows opening in New York are built around the same question: Can the work of these idiosyncratic authors be carried on by other actors?
BLOCK: Jeff Lunden tried to find out.
(Soundbite of "Talk Radio")
Mr. ERIC BOGOSIAN (Writer, Actor): (As Barry Champlain) Pick up the phone. Go ahead; pick it up. Hold it up to your face and dial 555-T-A-L-K, open your mouth, and tell them what we're going to do about the mess this country's in. Talk Radio is the last neighborhood in town. We just don't talk to each other anymore. Let's go to the first caller.
JEFF LUNDEN: When Eric Bogosian's "Talk Radio" opened to the public theater in 1987, it was an immediate hit. Bogosian wrote a titanic role for himself, Barry Champlain, the acerbic, and at times vicious radio host, taking calls from a menagerie of lonely hearts and crackpots. Liev Schreiber is now playing it on Broadway. Bogosian says Schreiber has uncovered new depths in the role of Barry Champlain.
Mr. BOGOSIAN: I like watching him make his choices. He does a lot of things. He acts. He brings more like a fully-formed character. My stuff, I think I'm a fairly good actor, but I really basically gun it for the whole time, and I don't even know what I'm doing half the time. I'm in some kind of altered state.
Mr. LIEV SCHREIBER (Actor): (As Barry Champlain) I'm sure a lot of you out there are probably wondering why the corporate guys down at Metro Scan would want someone like me, a big mouth, someone who isn't afraid to tell it like it is, running his mouth at all those stations. I'll tell you why - money.
LUNDEN: Schreiber says he thought "Talk Radio" was a bleak play, but as he's been performing it, his view has changed.
Mr. SCHREIBER: What's sort of surprising me is the heart in it. Is that it is a kind of deeply vulnerable and felt, and ultimately, emotionally kind of cathartic piece.
(Soundbite from "Talk Radio")
Mr. SCHREIBER: (As Barry Champlain) Your own lives have become your entertainment. Monday night, millions of people will be listening to the show, and you have nothing to say, nothing to talk about. Marvelous technology is at our disposal, and rather than reaching for new heights, you want to see how far down we can go, how deep into the muck we can immerse ourselves. What do you want to talk about? Baseball scores, your bets, orgasms. You're pathetic.
LUNDEN: Schreiber says part of the reason he took "Talk Radio" to Broadway is that he studied Eric Bogosian's work in college, and saw him perform off-Broadway. Bogosian, on the other hand, found inspiration from Spalding Gray, who courageously took aspects of his own life, and turn them into art.
Mr. BOGOSIAN: I love watching what he did; I thought it was tremendously skillful. And anybody who thought they could simply follow in his footsteps discovered what incredible craft he brought to what he did.
(Soundbite of "Monster in a Box")
Mr. SPALDING GRAY (Actor and Writer): You see in 1967, while I was trying to take my first vacation, my mother killed herself. And since then, I've written a book about it. And just to clear up any questions you may have about the title of this monologue, this is the box. And this is the monster in it.
LUNDEN: The life and work of Spalding Gray is the subject of a new off-Broadway show called "Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell." It's a collage of his monologues and journal entries performed by five actors. Kathie Russo, Gray's widow, says the idea for the show came about when she arranged a reading of excerpts from "Swimming to Cambodia," featuring Eric Bogosian, a few years ago.
Ms. KATHIE RUSSO: It's like this light bulb went off like a - other people can read his work, no problem.
LUNDEN: Russo enlisted director Lucy Sexton to help shape and direct the piece.
Ms. LUCY SEXTON (Director): Because he was talking about himself, and because he was such a brilliant, captivating, funny performer, he kind of buried the fact that actually this was really well-crafted writing going on underneath it. When you see it in other people's mouths, you go, looks like a great story even if it's, you know, Hazelle, it's a black woman telling it, and she's running all over the stage and doing it in an entirely different way, the story comes through.
LUNDEN: Hazelle is actress and performance artist Hazelle Goodman. She does a comic monologue where the author goes to a Native American sweat lodge.
Ms. HAZELLE GOODMAN (Actress and Performance Artist): People began praying. Oh Great Spirit, this is Robert speaking, and I want to remain humble and get rid of my macho qualities for this ceremony. I have spoken. He comes around to me and I say, Oh Great Spirit, this is Spalding speaking, and I want to maintain an open and sincere attitude during this ceremony, and not pollute it with my heavy analysis and ironic commentary, and end up turning the sacred event into just another story that I will try to sell to the American public.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LUNDEN: Kathie Russo says her husband was constantly looking for the perfect moment, a place he never quite got to.
Ms. RUSSO: When we were together, we moved to Sag Harbor. He said, Oh finally, a house I love. I love this town. I've, you know, the family is working, everything is going great. And then he'd go, but we could be living in Northern California, you know. Then I go, get - just get out of the room. Just go, you know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. AIN GORDON (Actor and Playwright): (As Spalding Gray) Journal entry, 1969. I know that I'm still all right, because I still love and have this guide of seasons, the ocean. If things get any worse, I can go to them, and they will take me in. I often feel lost in the essence of a day, the mild wind and easy clouds, the graceful easy white ass of day that I want nothing more than to become a leaf, not to write about it, but do nothing, to be taken in and bathed. For me, a perfect moment is when I am being there and nowhere else in my mind.
LUNDEN: Ain Gordon, better known as a playwright, reads Spalding Gray's journal entries from behind the desk with a glass of water, just like Gray himself.
Mr. GORDON: I know it is his position, and I know that is a weighty position to try and occupy. But I'm not trying to impersonate him, as none of us, all right; it's not possible.
LUNDEN: One journal entry Gordon delivers is Gray's last. The playwright had been in a terrible car accident, and suffered brain damage.
Mr. GORDON: (As Spalding Gray) This is my last entry. Kathie, it's an old story you've heard over and over. My life is coming to an end. Everything's in my head now, my timing is all off, all these terrific hesitancies. In the last two years I've had 10 therapists, maybe more. Not to mention three psychopharmacologists and all those shock treatments. Suicide is a viable alternative for me, instead of going to an institution. I don't want an audience. I don't want anyone to see me slip into the water.
(Soundbite of music)
LUNDEN: Director Lucy Sexton.
Ms. SEXTON: Yes, there was that awful final moment, but that moment doesn't trump these other moments. These other moments still are here, these stories still are here, and through those stories, Spalding is still here.
LUNDEN: "Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell" opens tonight at the Minetta Lane Theatre off-Broadway. Eric Bogosian's "Talk Radio," starring Liev Schreiber, opens at the Longacre Theater on Broadway this Sunday.
For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
(Soundbite of music)
BLOCK: You can hear a discussion of Eric Bogosian's in your face performances at npr.org.
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.