“I can’t move as easily as I once did, but I’m in pretty good shape,” he says now. “I’ve recovered from an operation I had a few years ago, and I learned to take better care of myself and be more positive. Or to acknowledge the possibility of seeing things more positively. That’s work. But as a result, I find that the feeling of power I get onstage is, well, less powerful.”
Perhaps for him. For the audience, he still offers something complicated and potently weird that’s simply not part of the contemporary style. Within the bounds of musical-comedy convention, his Moonface Martin, a low-grade gangster, is about as creepy as you can get. The expressionist black eye makeup he wears makes it look as if he’s been beaten up so much that the bruises became permanent. In the second act, after singing Cole Porter’s “Be Like the Bluebird,” he does a quiet dance that owes something to Bobby Clark and something to Charlie Chaplin but that is still recognizably a Joel Grey performance—which is to say, ambivalent, precisely detailed, and alone.
In person, he is both more and less opaque. He struggles with how to present himself, as if he were still a collection of attributes he could sift and rearrange. When I ask if I can describe him as single, he says, “Yes, single,” then mischievously amends it to “Somewhat single.”
But that night, I get an urgent e-mail message, asking me, with four exclamation points, to call. When I do, it turns out he has merely found the Doty poem, called “30 Delft Tiles.” He races through it for the line he wants: “God, my dear,” he recites, editing as he goes, “is in the damages.”