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Master storyteller Spalding Gray plays Spalding Gray to the hilt in his final one-man show, "And Everything Is Going Fine," a film biography directed by Stephen Soderbergh. Pictured: the young Gray performing one of his early monologues. The title is derived from one of Gray's theater pieces involving his father's speedy remarriage after his wife's suicide. "And everything is fine" served as Gray's mantra about denial. Photo courtesy of IFC Films

Actor Spalding Gray gets the last word.

The master monologist would expect it, too. "Absolutely," said Gray's widow Kathleen Russo, co-producer of "And Everything Is Going Fine," the Gray biopic making its Chicago premiere Tuesday at the Goodman Theatre.

"There's this interview that he did with NPR. We actually played it at his memorial," Russo said. "He said, `What do I fear about death? The biggest thing I fear about death is I won't be able to talk about it!' Thanks to Steven Soderbergh, he gets the last word."

The first one and all the words in the middle, too. With few exceptions, the footage is all Gray all the time, a portrait of a genial if troubled artist. The lean, WASP-y wit riffs on life, death and suburbia as screened through his own embattled intellect.

The Rhode Island-bred Gray emerged as a leading figure of avant-garde theater in the late '70s in New York. His tragicomic spiels on his boyhood, his mother's suicide at 52, and his search for "the perfect moment" springboarded him to stage and art-film careers.

His most famous monologue, "Swimming to Cambodia" -- where he analyzed his role as a diplomat's aide in "The Killing Fields" --  was made into an 1987 film. Gray, candid about his chronic bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts, was 62 when he vanished off a Staten Island ferry in 2004.

His body was recovered three months later from the East River. The death certificate listed drowning as the cause of death.

Relatives and friends know the truth, Russo said. "It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure it out," she said evenly.

Russo hand-picked Oscar winner Soderbegh ("Traffic") to splice home movies, film clips, and footage of her husband's shows into a cosmic, 90-minute parting shot. The director and Gray had prevously collaborated on "Gray's Anatomy" (1996).

The film, which debuted at Sundance last year, is a family affair, Russo said proudly. Forrest Gray, 18, the eldest of her two sons with Gray, composed the instrumental movie for the closing credits.

Several clips were recorded at the old Goodman Theatre, one of the first prominent venues to book Gray in the early 1980s.

Within a few years, the irreverent storyteller -- who performed seated at a table, with a glass of water and a notebook -- was bumped from the 150-seat studio theater to the 700-seat main stage to accommodate crowds. He last appeared at the Goodman in the upbeat "Morning, Noon and Night" (1999).

Longtime friend Roche Schulfer, recalling Gray's personal warmth, curiosity, and charisma, credited him for paving the way for John Leguizamo and David Sedaris.

"Does he get the credit that he should get? Maybe not," the Goodman's executive director said.

Yet he's seen many one-person shows in the last two decades "and very few come even close to the experience of spending 90 minutes with Spalding Gray in a room," he said.

 

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