Soderbergh’s documentary, though necessarily fragmented and condensed, conveys some of Gray’s abilities as a performer, especially his manic energy and his impeccable command of timing, nuance, and inflection. There is humor in the monologues that the written word cannot convey: the way “wedlock” becomes “wed-LOCK,” for instance, or the spontaneous dance of joy he performs in Morning, Noon and Night. But the documentary has the feeling of a greatest-hits reel. The movie adaptations of Gray’s monologues, while more faithful to the monologue form, are oddly inert, in the way that filmed theatrical performances always are. (When his directors resort to sound and visual effects—as Soderbergh does most aggressively in his Gray’s Anatomy—the contrivance can be wearying.)
I saw only one of Gray’s monologues in person, but I’ll never forget it. I was thirteen years old when he performed Gray’s Anatomy at the Vivian Beaumont. In the intimacy of that theater Gray’s delivery was at times violent in its intensity, particularly in the story about the psychic surgeon. I know Gray didn’t use any props but I can still see the spaghetti and meatballs flying through the air.