Orphans in the storm
Steve Cramer talks to monologist James Braly about love, loss and eccentric women
This article is from 2007.
‘I think one of them ripped off the rent money, or maybe the tattoo money,’ says James Braly. ‘That guy’s got 40 percent of his body covered in tattoos. I don’t think it’s violent yet, although he has a bandolier with real bullets on it.’ Braly is sitting beside me on a park bench in New York’s Washington Square. It’s well past midnight, and one of the three men standing a few yards away under a streetlamp, exchanging violent verbal abuse with his companions, really does appear to be armed with real bullets.
The three exchange the Oedipal pronoun so frequently between them that it seems no mother on Manhattan island is safe. Yet Braly is, like his stage presence, as unflappable and phlegmatic as ever. ‘I see it all the time; this is like a theme park. It’s old New York,’ he says calmly.
There’s something reassuring in his presence, as well as his descriptive powers, which I witnessed on stage a few hours before, that draws one back wholly into his story, so that we are able to block out the scuffle going on behind us. Life in a Marital Institution is a very simple tale about a 20-year marriage, its end and subsequent years, as well as a dying sister, two sons and their births, former girlfriends and a brief affair. There’s other stuff along the way, but that would be spoiling it. If this sounds like one of those American self-therapy shows we see so many of on the Fringe, more beneficial to the teller than the hearer, please dispel the notion and read on. Braly, a tall angular fellow, in a dapper, tie-less suit, with silver rimmed spectacles, his face framed by curly greying hair, is a far classier act than this. As a monologist, he’s moved pretty quickly from being a relative unknown to drawing comparisons from New York critics with the late Spalding Gray, whose Swimming To Cambodia was arguably the one man show of the 80s.
For this kind of performance, there’s a lot about presence, the simple “being there” quality which can only work when you’re in the room. Braly showed this in spades earlier tonight.
The quality of his technique is that he manages to tell us a love story, but without the clamouring for attention, caterwauling or sentimentalism you might expect. He mixes warmth with detachment, so that beyond the humour of the piece, the sadness and pathos of his plight settles upon us almost unnoticed. Braly is as much critical of himself as his estranged wife, Susan.
But at heart it is a love story, and Braly reflects upon recovery from love. Discussing a former girlfriend, who he had separated from before he met his wife, he says, “She’s an adult onset schizophrenic now. She calls me twice a year according to which phase she’s at. One goes, “thank you so very much, you were so kind to me for letting me live in your house, until I dumped you for another guy who let me live in his”, or I get “I’m going to destroy you for trying to destroy me as part of the conspiracy”.’
Braly says he is drawn to troubled women. Are they especially difficult to part from? He makes a comparison between his relationship with his old girlfriend and his wife: ‘It was familiar and comforting because it was crazy. I guess you can’t go home again, but this stuff is the touchstone. For me the touchstone, home now, is my wife, even though we are separated, and [to move on from a relationship that isn’t working] you have to kind of orphan yourself, until you don’t want to go home.’ You’ll enjoy being homeless with Braly.
Life in a Marital Institution, Assembly Rooms, 623 3030, 5–27 Aug (not 13), 2pm, £11–£12 (£10–£11). Previews 3 & 4 Aug, £5.