Michael Brandt uses the detached tone of a news anchor to recount the most horrifying events of his life in “A Spalding Gray Matter,” a monologue modeled in style and content after the brutally personal storytelling of Gray himself. With only occasional touches of sarcasm and sentiment, Brandt’s matter-of-fact demeanor makes him a trustworthy narrator, his low-key performance allowing attention to stay focused on the details of his story.
And the details are terrible. Brandt bluntly describes how a misdiagnosis of bacterial pneumonia resulted in three months of medical nightmares. Excruciating hospital visits are recounted alongside funnier — but no less earnest — anecdotes about how his crisis led him to move in with his parents, acquire a wardrobe of sweatpants and develop an obsession with Spalding Gray, whose 2004 disappearance and eventual suicide coincided with Brandt’s own troubles.
Like Gray in “Swimming to Cambodia” or “Monster in a Box,” Brandt delivers his monologue while seated at a table: There’s no embellishment, save the occasional ironic projection on a small white screen. It’s a stylistic debt to his predecessor that most auds would have noticed anyway, and the constant references to Gray only make the point impossible to miss.
Which is a shame, because Spalding Gray’s specter is an unnecessary distraction from an otherwise gripping, well-told story. Not only does the famous actor’s presence invite us to compare Brandt’s novice work with the master’s, it also pushes the play toward solipsism.
Brandt writes himself into a dramaturgical corner with a structure that forces him to keep comparing his own life to another. His conclusions, therefore, all center on his feelings — how he’s anxious about almost dying and how his responses might have compared with Gray’s.
And while emotions are an integral part of any personal story, Brandt’s writing suggests he has not stepped outside his private experiences and placed them in a less egocentric context. His fears are clearly outlined, but there are none of the deeper inquiries that help turn self-analysis into theater.
That’s a frustrating limitation, since Brandt’s an engaging performer and he does occasionally hint at subjects broader than his own suffering. Maybe his next piece will set about examining them without the encumbrance of another performer’s legacy.