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Theatre in Review: All the Rage (Peter Jay Sharp Theater)

Martin Moran. Photo: Joan Marcus

One quality our theatre could use more of these days is thoughtfulness. There's no absence of big-idea men: We have Tom Stoppard, who offers an argument only to find 16 different ways of contradicting it, and Tony Kushner, who erects large, theoretical systems largely so he can poke holes in them. But we could use a few more writers who are willing probe beneath the surface of ordinary life, thereby helping us to see the world through a fresh set of eyes. Most of the time, such skills tend to belong to the essayist -- and, in some cases, the novelist -- rather than the playwright. Once in a while, however, we get someone skilled in the art of noticing, and the theatre is all the better for it.

Martin Moran is such a writer. Long a familiar face in Broadway musicals, he made a new name for himself in 2004 with The Tricky Part, a remarkably lucid and unsensationalized account of his adolescence, which was scarred by sexual abuse at the hands of a youth counselor. Unlike many solo shows, it was undoubtedly the stuff of theatre; his lifelong struggle to understand and forgive the destruction of his innocence, climaxing with a many-years-later encounter with the perpetrator, was inherently dramatic. All the Rage is a different sort of piece -- its argument is more diffuse, more roundabout in its construction, and far more subtle, but it is no less carefully considered, and it deals with issues that touch all of us.

Moran's subject this time out is anger, its uses and its perils. All the Rage begins with him at his father's funeral, about to engage in nuclear verbal combat with his wicked stepmother. ("I'm going to call her Joyce," he says, sweetly, carefully avoiding future libel actions.) Lord knows he has plenty of provocation; he has spent a quarter of a century in Joyce's crosshairs -- he calls their relationship "The Thirty Years War" -- and her list of grievances is endless and beyond redress. The sore point du jour is his father's obituary: Moran has included his mother among the survivors -- she is, after all, the mother of his children -- and the henna-haired, chain-smoking rageaholic Joyce is ready to pounce.

Interestingly, however, their imminent battle is tabled for a real, if brief, moment of communion; this is the starting point of a journey that jumps back and forth in time as it roams all over the globe. Among other things, it includes Moran's involvement with an asylum-seeking refugee from Chad; his trip to South Africa's Cradle of Humankind, from whence the human race is said to stem; and the continuing fallout from The Tricky Part, which, in performance and in its published form, led to the same question from reviewers and audience members alike: "Where is your anger?"

Some of the most touching passages in All the Rage focus on Moran's growing friendship with Siba, a young African man who endured unimaginable horrors in Chad before escaping to the US, and who must deal with the memory of the family he left behind. (Moran, who is fluent in French, volunteered as Siba's translator as he made his way through various levels of bureaucracy, seeking official asylum.) The description of Siba's arrival in New York -- which might be another planet as far as he is concerned -- puts us in the position of experiencing the sheer strangeness of the city in an immigrant's eyes. Moran shares little images of window treatments, drawn on napkins by Siba, who in Africa made curtains for a living. The contrast between the evident civility of these elegant little sketches and the brutalities visited upon him is far more eloquent than anything that can be put into words.

All the Rage is loaded with such grace notes: Moran's South African trip leads to a contemplation of Nelson Mandela's seemingly superhuman ability to transcend the past and to a consideration of Africa as the common source of humanity. Closer to home, he shares a classic New York story, of an enraged female pedestrian verbally savaging the driver of a Hummer, and admits to secretly admiring her take-no-prisoners style. He also recalls discovering the jerry-rigged punching bag his mother used to blow off steam and offers poignant glimpses of his brother, whose anger at the circumstances of his life -- among them a broken home and chronic illness -- led to various forms of self-destructive behavior. And there is the ongoing question of Moran's recovery from abuse at the hands of Bob the counselor -- "It took me 30 years to call the cops," he admits -- leading to a brief reprise of The Tricky Part's climactic scene, in which he goes hunting for a monster and instead finds an ailing, prematurely-aged, burnt-out case. Time, it seems, had exacted the revenge that Moran had hankered for.

Not everything works. The passage detailing his growing boredom with acting in the long run of Spamalot and his ill-advised attempt at volunteering with Doctors Without Borders is a little too silly for its own good. He is capable of wickedly amusing observations ("I noticed Dad's lady friend and George Washington had the exact same hairdo, though hers was dyed red") but Moran isn't in the business of zingers, and All the Rage takes a little while to settle into the right groove. Seth Barrish's direction ensures that Moran maintains a light touch throughout, and Russell H. Champa's always-sensitive lighting design provides important assistance as the text moves through time and space.

And it's always a pleasure to follow the contours of Moran's thought as he weaves together these varied experiences into a cogent and enlightening contemplation of our most hostile impulses. All the Rage offers no answers, no forced conclusions. But the questions raised are undoubtedly relevant to everyone in the audience.--David Barbour

(30 January 2013)

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