Mercedes Ruehl paced in her East Hampton home as she pored over a copy of Spalding Gray’s “Life Interrupted.”The Academy Award-winning actress had lost count of the number of times she’d gone over a specific excerpt, titled “The Anniversary,” from the famed monologist’s book—a passage that his widow, Kathleen Russo, had asked Ms. Ruehl to stage at a benefit for Performance Space 122, a Manhattan-based venue more commonly known as PS 122 that is dedicated to contemporary performance art.
By Saturday night, Ms. Ruehl was ready.
Making a grand entrance, she swung open the shed door behind Ms. Russo’s Sag Harbor home, sauntered over to a small desk on the lawn, and began—imitating Mr. Gray’s own performance.
“On the morning of 1/12/2000, I woke with the usual anxious feeling caused by the lingering bottom-line memory that one day—never to be known to me until I’m there—that I, as I have come to know myself, will disappear forever and ever and ever and forever. Amen,” Ms. Ruehl read in a dry monotone, with a twinge of humor at each pause. “End of story.”
Surrounded by enlarged images of Mr. Gray—leaning against the shed, the fence, the house and just about any solid surface in the small backyard—Ms. Ruehl received quiet chuckles from the modest crowd, gathered to celebrate the life of the late Spalding Gray, who died in 2004, in what is believed to have been a suicidal jump from the Staten Island Ferry.
“That’s a really great picture of him that I just unwrapped today,” Ms. Russo said during the event, pointing to a portrait of her husband. “It was just sitting in my basement and I was going through stuff like, ‘Where’s this from? Where’s this from?’”
A year earlier, Ms. Russo had been seated among the PS 122 staff at a committee meeting for their Spalding Gray Award—which supports writers and performers who “fully realize both aspects of Spalding’s legacy, who are fearless innovators of theatrical form, who reach into daily experience and create resonant, transcendent work that makes us all bigger, wider, wiser and, somehow, more than we were when we entered the theater,” according to press notes—when artistic director Vallejo Gantner suggested naming one of PS 122’s newly renovated theaters after the late legend.
Elated by the idea, Ms. Russo offered up her longtime home as the site for a fundraiser, the place where she and Mr. Gray had raised their two children, Forrest and Theo, and Ms. Russo’s daughter, Marissa Maier. Sprinkled with brightly colored lawn chairs and strings of lights, the corner lot hosted a homespun party to benefit PS 122’s renovation, scheduled for completion in 2015 after four years of work.
Since 1980, the space has been a haven for contemporary artists, when rogue performers would crawl through the windows into the building—an abandoned elementary school at 150 First Avenue, on the corner of East 9th Street.
“It was owned by the Department of Education because it was a school,” Institutional Giving and Capital Campaign Manager Bevin Ross explained on Saturday evening, “but the security guards let it happen, because it’s better to have artists in these buildings and using the space and keeping the boiler running … as opposed to drug addicts.”
The East Village venue will reopen its doors with two new theaters capable of housing 286 patrons in a state-of-the-art facility that, at one time, helped launch the careers of many artists, including actor John Leguizamo, actor/writer Eric Bogosian, author Jonathan Ames, the Blue Man Group, and Mr. Gray himself. He was known to use the original PS 122 stage to “test out” his famous monologues, according to Ms. Ross.
“He felt like it was his second home at PS 122, and I’m so appreciative of PS 122 for everything they’ve done to support his work after he died,” Ms. Russo said of her late husband. “It’s been 10 years since he died, and he would have been 74 on June 5—so he’s a Gemini, and we’re celebrating the first day of summer, and I think it’s totally appropriate to have all of you celebrating Spalding in June.”
Mr. Gray rose to fame in the 1980s and 1990s during the emergence of the minimalist autobiographical monologue, leading the movement with his pieces “Swimming to Cambodia,” “Monster in a Box,” and “Gray’s Anatomy,” all of which were turned into films.
“It’s nice to see such a concerted effort to commemorate his legacy,” 22-year-old Forrest Gray said. “Otherwise, I think he would have faded into obscurity.”
His 17-year-old brother, Theo, continued, “It’s good to see everybody come together and share his stories.”
Earlier in the evening, while Ms. Ruehl performed, Theo stood beside family and friends, their hands on his shoulders. The monologue was about him—the day the young boy visited the Central Park merry-go-round with his father. Ms. Russo stood off to the side, her hand covering her mouth, watching Ms. Ruehl’s every movement.
“My mom didn’t tell me that it was going to be that story,” Theo said. “I thought it was really interesting … It’s just funny hearing your name over and over again.”
Ms. Russo added, “She got, like, the pauses where Spalding would do it. Like when she reached for the glass of water, I was like, ‘Oh, we’re like home free.’ She really studied the material. She embodied Spalding.”
At the end of the reading, Ms. Russo took the stage to thank her dear friend, Ms. Ruehl, and discussed PS 122’s significance. She then donated $10,000 to the cause, to which several guests added. Coupled with the event’s silent auction, more than $55,000 will benefit the theater, to be named in Mr. Spalding’s honor.
And in yet another incarnation, his legacy will most certainly live on.
For more information, visit www.ps122.org.