MONSTER IN A BOX, the 13th of Spalding Gray's unique stage monologues, takes place in locations that skip from Nicaragua to New York and involves characters that range from a gathering of UFO enthusiasts in L.A. to a group of movie stars in Leningrad. But like all of Gray's work, this one-man adventure story stakes out its most fascinating territory in the mind and spirit of its storyteller. The geography of Gray's stories always begins and ends within his psyche, and his stories, however delightful, are filled with strange, fearful terrors he has found therein.
MONSTER, for example, is about the distractions Gray encountered while he was trying to write his upcoming novel, Impossible Vacation. It's often very, very funny, as when he tells of being thrown out of the Hermitage Museum, but because the novel deals with Gray's Oedipal feelings toward his mother, it is also a dark and brooding work about the author's struggle to find inner peace. It's a story within a story, as Gray explains it, "about a man who can't write a book about a man who can't take a vacation." And as Gray unwinds the trail of weird, sometimes demented episodes that marks the efforts to finish his manuscript, he links these tales to the internal battle he faces in trying to come to terms with his past.
The evening, which lasted a little under 2 hours without intermission, was totally true to Gray tradition. The setting, as usual, was a table and a chair, and the author-performer appeared in his customary dark slacks and plain sports shirt. He begins with his ritualistic sipping of a glass of water, then slowly starts the action by explaining the title. The "box" is a cardboard box, and within it is the "monster", a huge loose-leaf binder containing the pages of his novel. From there, Gray gradually picks up the pace, proceeding from his unsuccessful stab at working on the novel at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire to his equally fruitless attempts to keep writing while he is preparing a theater piece from the Mark Taper Forum. By the time he has journeyed to Nicaragua with his ever-present girlfriend Renee to hear a congregation of grieving mothers tell of the atrocities the contras have committed, he is on a wild-eyed roll; and when he arrives at a screening of "Moonstruck" at MoMA, obsessed with the idea that he is a victim of AIDS, he has reached a paroxysm of hysteria that is hilarious and horrifying. Finally, at the end of the incredible roller-coaster ride he has charted, Gray reaches the point that sends him and us home with a semblance of calm and understanding. Coincidentally, he has finished the wrenching experience of writing his autobiographical novel and, in telling about his bittersweet engagement in Thornton Wilder's play, he closes with a surreal incident from the production that leads to a very theatrical moment of emotional release. The whole profoundly disturbing, deceptively sprawling evening has been leading up to that last, quiet farewell—and when it comes, it's a moment of magic. MONSTER IN A BOX made its world debut at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater on 11/2/90 and moved to the Vivian Beaumont Theater on 1/21/91