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Theatre in Review: The Tricky Part (The Barrow Group)

Martin Moran. Photo: Edward T. Morris.

I had a visitation from William Wordsworth at The Barrow Group the other night. Seeing, for the second time, The Tricky Part -- I first encountered it in its 2004 premiere -- I kept thinking of the English poet's admonition that poetry "takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." I don't know if Martin Moran would describe his solo autobiographical piece as poetry, but there's something oddly Wordsworthian in the way the affable, open-faced actor-author, casually chatting with the audience, draws one into the dark heart of a relationship that profoundly altered his young life and from which, more than four decades later, he is not entirely free. The Tricky Part is a stealthy piece of construction; it sneaks up on you when you're not looking and leaves you emotionally poleaxed.

Moran -- a familiar Broadway face thanks to long runs in Titanic, Cabaret, Spamalot, and, most recently, a stint in Wicked -- has a gift for taking the audience into his confidence, entertaining with breezily amusing tales about growing up Catholic in a small Colorado town circa 1972. They include his youthful fascination with the saints ("Catholic celebrities") whose martyrdom ended in various forms of dismemberment. ("You get so you recognize their hairdos or their particular wounds. Like, sad St. Lucy with her eyeballs on a plate, the virgin Agatha with her breasts on a platter, or St. Denis carrying his own head down from Montmartre.") Eccentric nuns abound: One of them teaches cursive writing using a different 45rpm record for each letter; I'm still wondering why "The Famer in the Dell" represents the letter W. (She also has a breakdown in the middle of class, freezing up, and is never heard from again.) Another sister, pointing to the classroom wall where a crucifix is placed next to a clock, announces, sententiously, "We line up by one, but we live by the other." Growing up among such extravagant personalities, it's hardly surprising that Moran opted for a career in the theatre.

So smoothly amusing are the piece's early passages that it's easy to miss how deftly Moran switches gears: Suddenly, it is 2002 and he is in California, driving to a veteran's hospital to face down, thirty years after the fact, Bob, the man who sexually abused him between the ages of twelve and fifteen. A busy actor with a boyfriend of nearly twenty years' duration, Moran is, nevertheless, tense with anticipation and dread; he is also armed with a tape recorder with which he intends to surreptitiously capture their conversation. Why has he come? Revenge? To extract an apology? To experience some form of catharsis? He isn't sure. The first shock comes when he sees the magnetic figure who dazzled him at twelve, now prematurely aged by diabetes and hobbled by an operation that required lopping off part of his foot. (Staring at the sallow, flabby, grey-haired creature, he barely recognizes his long-ago seducer.) Alone with Moran, Bob notes that, in addition to ill health, he is more or less bankrupt, adding, "I mean, if you're thinking of suing me, I don't have anything." Moran adds, "His lips lift with this hint of a grin, his eyes saying: your move."

As tense as this passage is, the heart of the piece features Moran reading, from a notebook, the detailed account he wrote down, at age thirty, of his first encounter with Bob. A former seminarian and volunteer at a camp run by the Archdiocese of Denver, Bob puts together a little youth retreat of his own, beginning with Moran and another boy. He takes them out to a farm located hours away from their home, shows them how to milk a cow and pitch hay -- and, at bedtime, takes the naked, barely pubescent Moran into his sleeping bag. The actor's hushed delivery, combined with Elizabeth Mak's intently focused lighting, underlines the power of his words as he conjures up the mixture of excitement and dread that possesses him: "It was as though he was touching me into being and I was dying to find out who I was."

Returning home, the boy instantly realizes he can never go back to before, and over the next three years, he becomes a split personality, sleepwalking through his daily routine while sharing a secret sexual life with Bob. The price is steep and includes two suicide attempts; not until Bob faces jail for abusing another boy does Moran, now fifteen, find the courage to break it off. Through it all, Bob remains appallingly deaf to the damage he causes: "In another time and place," he tells Moran, "what we shared is good...Because there's love, you know, and it's between us." These words ring hollow to a boy trying to put a bullet in his brain.

It is in his adult confrontation that Bob -- now an irretrievably broken specimen who, after everything, still doesn't grasp the depth of his crime - finally admits, "I guess, on the one hand, I wanted to build you up, but on the other, I was tearing you down." And it is here that Moran begins to sort out the tangle of need, desire, and fury that has held him in its grip for three decades. Theirs was a deeply sick relationship -- perhaps most damagingly, Bob told him that "homosexuals were people without love" -- and it set Moran on a long, long path of self-destructive promiscuity. Yet here he is, intact and staring down his tormentor, able to admit the love he felt for him, but asking the all-important question: "Imagine, Bob, what our friendship might have been if you hadn't crossed the line."

Under Seth Barrish's infinitely tactful direction, Moran handles this story entirely without sentimentality or bathos; The Tricky Part is so honestly written that each word, however painful, feels like a benediction. In the end, it is Moran's candor that saves him, opening the door to the understanding that forgiveness begins with himself. Earlier, he recalls reading, in class, about St. Martin, his namesake, who gave half of his cape to a beggar who was revealed to be nobody less than God Himself. This leads Ricky, a classmate, to demand half of Moran's Mars Bar during recess, using what might be called the St. Martin pitch. "I didn't see how, with his mean eyes and snotty nose, Ricky's could be the face of God," Moran says. "But that's the tricky part." Indeed it is, and freedom comes with the knowledge that God -- or, at the very least, something like grace -- can be found even in the earthliest of hells. -- David Barbour

(3 December 2018)

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