Off-Broadway Review

"The Tricky Part"


April 27, 2004

Martin Moran spends much of "The Tricky Part" close to tears, but he never lets himself cry. We'd understand if he did: The writer-performer's stage memoir exposes the inappropriate sexual contact he had, beginning when he was 12, with a man associated with the Catholic Church. For Moran, however, it's more important that he tell the tale through to its end. Telling it helps him own it, and owning it helps him move on.

That determined lack of sentimentality, however, never precludes a warm and complicated humanity. In "The Tricky Part," which runs at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre through May 30, Moran confronts the trauma in his past with startling and admirable empathy, and, even more surprisingly, an undaunted sense of humor.

Moran, who grew up in Denver, first met the man named Bob at a Catholic boys' camp. After an initial sexual encounter when Moran was 12, they continued to see each other for about 3 years. He reveals just enough physical details to give us an outline of what happened, but keeps enough to himself to make it clear that we can never fully know the experience.

He does not use the word molestation, speaking instead in the language of trespass and mistakes. As he candidly sorts through the aftershocks of the episode, he cultivates an accepting forgiveness of Bob that still manages to acknowledge his anger and his sadness. And he refuses to paint himself as a victim, recognizing the role his own inchoate desire and curiosity played in what happened.

Not only is the story itself surprising and moving, but it's also marvelously told. As directed by Seth Barrish, Moran delivers his monologue in a manner so easy and conversational that you almost don't notice how skillfully he has structured his script. The Chinese-box, anecdotes-within-anecdotes style may seem like a stream- of-consciousness progression, but it's actually Moran's deceptively effortless method of modulating the tone and pace of the piece. Bit by bit, he doles out information with a canny understanding of suspense.

His writing includes so much visual detail that it's easy to forget that the production consists of little more than a guy sitting on a stool. Through richly economical descriptions, we see everything from a tall bucktoothed nun who was one of Moran's favorites, to a herd of wild elk in a hushed wilderness, to the ragged mop of white hair that Bob had grown by the time Moran saw him again in 2002.

In summoning his past so vividly, he never loses sight of the humor. We can see, just as he does, that when you put a crucifix beside a clock, Jesus' hands always point to 2:45, the blessed hour of release from private Catholic school. We can hear one nun's voice always crackling, as he says, with "something like grief, or cheese."

Moran addresses the audience from a set (by Paul Steinberg) that softens the McGinn/Cazale black box with light wood and gentle curves. On a small table at one side stands a childhood photo of Moran that will acquire new, bittersweet resonance by the show's end.

The unobtrusive lighting by Heather Carson only becomes noticeably theatrical when Moran arrives at the event at the core of his story. As he relates his first sexual contact with Bob, his writing moves into self-conscious lyricism that is only sporadically effective. We can, for the first time, feel him working. That's okay: What he's doing is indeed work, and he'll keep it up until his 12-year-old self can rest.

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW THE TRICKY PART. Written and performed by Martin Moran, directed by Seth Barrish. McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at 76th Street, Manhattan.

Gordon Cox is a regular contributor to Newsday.