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Monologist Spalding Gray: there's no one else quite like him. At times deeply personal, squirmingly confessional

The highly visual ``theater of images'' and ``performance art'' of people like Robert Wilson and Laurie Anderson are growing more fashionable by the minute. But this doesn't impress Spalding Gray, an incorrigible talker whose pure reliance on the spoken word -- the ``theater of syllables,'' you might call it -- is as refreshing as it is ornery. Being ornery isn't the surest road to stardom, of course, and Gray's reputation has spread at a sleepy pace. Early in his latest monologue, ``Terrors of Pleasure,'' he tells of swimming in a river for the first time, and finds it an apt symbol for his experience in general -- plunging into the current, arms and legs flapping away, having a fine time but not getting anywhere.

This makes for a funny anecdote, like much of Gray's material, and it contains more than a grain of truth. Despite all kinds of effort, hilariously described in ``Terrors of Pleasure,'' the earnest Mr. Gray has yet to land a role in a TV movie (his ``chemistry'' didn't ``click'' in an audition with Farrah Fawcett) or a spot on Johnny Carson's show.

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Still, the metaphor of a salmon heading upstream doesn't quite fit the facts of the moment -- since Gray is currently spinning his yarns from a prestigious Lincoln Center stage, marking his arrival in New York's theatrical mainstream after years of downtown work (at the Performing Garage, his home base) and widespread touring.

Like other Gray monologues, ``Terrors of Pleasure'' is deeply personal and, at times, squirmingly confessional. Its outline is simple: Gray decides that owning a house would make him ``feel like a grown-up,'' buys a cottage in the mountains, finds that it has more defects than ``The Money Pit,'' and flees to Hollywood in search of fame, respect, and enough money to have the foundation fixed and the holes in the roof stopped up.

What lends resonance to this story is the mingled strength and vulnerability of Gray's personality, which becomes more and more apparent as his memories, reflections, and fantasies spin through the air for some 90 minutes. Gray isn't as naive or unguarded as his just-plain-folks stage presence might suggest; he has a sharp ear for language, and gauges both the extent and the effect of his revelations with canny precision.

Yet this is real life -- his own real life -- he's sharing with us, and his narrative skill is matched by a winning generosity and candor.

One is likely to sigh with sympathy (even while laughing with recognition) when his guided tour of the psyche reaches its climax, and he can't avoid the ultimate question of art vs. life: Did he buy that awful house just to make a monologue out of it?

Although his one-man shows are almost entirely verbal, it's useful to remember that Gray launched his career as a key member of the bygone Performance Group and the ongoing Wooster Group, companies known for radical experiments in performing style and visual effect.

Even as he sits modestly behind his table and sips delicately from his water glass, he remains a keenly self-aware artist who knows how to surprise an audience by abruptly flinging a deck of cards into the air or playing a cassette from his girlfriend's phone-answering machine. The very shirt on his back has a history, which he saves until just the right moment to spring it on us.

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Gray's extravagance with words has dangers; in particular, he sometimes veers uncomfortably close to caricature and condescension when portraying other people he's encountered. But his willingness to bare his own shortcomings, with startlingly few holds barred, takes out a good deal of the sting.

There's nobody else quite like Spalding Gray: a combination of maverick actor, gifted raconteur, energetic reporter, and loquacious little boy who can't help spouting every single thing that happened on his summer vacation.

Spalding Gray's run at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater continues through June 8, with two of his earlier monologues following ``Terrors of Pleasure'' later on this month.

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