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The Tricky Part

Theatre Review by James Wilson - December 2, 2018

Martin Moran
Photo by Edward T. Morris

When The Tricky Part, Martin Moran's lacerating solo show about child sex abuse, debuted in 2003, the nation was still reeling from The Boston Globe's Roman Catholic church exposé published the year before. Fifteen years later the play remains as relevant and resonant as ever in the midst of the current #MeToo movement. Moran's deeply affecting account has lost none of its potency in the intervening years, and The Tricky Part is a timely reminder of the healing power in sharing and receiving traumatic histories.

The play is also very funny. The first part of the show transplants the audience into the world of Catholic parochial schools, and it evokes the moments in childhood when adults and their world seem so imposing, silly, and absurd. For young Marty, most of these adults are religious personnel. For instance, there is a buck-toothed singing nun, a nun who teaches cursive using the rhythm method (that is, through musical tunes), and a host of forbidding and foreboding sisters.

He also recounts a lesson from a German-Irish priest about sex for solely procreative purposes, and only after one has received the sacrament of marriage. In each drop of God's gift of the Seed of Life, the priest instructs the young boys, “there are a thousand hopeful Catholics.” Non-procreative sex, the priest warns the perplexed students, is an offense against God and constitutes a grave mortal sin. The future of the Catholic Church, after all, is at stake.

Grammar school reveries soon give way to adolescent nightmares and adulthood reckonings. The Tricky Part moves back and forth in time, and Moran describes in devastating detail his confrontation with his abuser and the events that obliterated his innocence. Thirty years after a camping trip in which Bob, a thirty-year-old camp counselor, molested the young Marty, the images are indelible. Moreover, the anger and pain are no less acute, prompting Moran to shout at his assaulter, “I was a child and I did not have consent to give!”

Directed by Seth Barrish (who is currently represented on Broadway with his direction of Mike Birbiglia's marvelous solo show The New One), Moran is an ingratiating and compelling narrator. Now in his fifties, Moran retains a boyish quality that makes him even more sympathetic. Theatregoers do not have to look hard to see his alter ego, the scared and confused twelve-year-old trying to make sense of the incidents that plunged him into bouts of depression and near suicide. Most importantly, Moran is a gifted raconteur with a talent for making the audience lean in closer even as they want to pull back when the memories become so excruciatingly personal and disturbing.

Indeed, the strength of the play stems from its simplicity. Except for a stool and a small table, the playing space is empty. Late in the play Moran reads his account from a book in which he had recorded his memories of the most emotionally difficult events. Figuratively, the storyteller gathers his listeners around a campfire (suggested quite persuasively by Elizabeth Mak's lighting), and the effect is chilling.

Moran begins the evening by displaying a photo of himself at twelve years old. Wearing a bathing suit and lifejacket while standing in a beached kayak, the young Marty holds a huge oar above his head. The child looks small and vulnerable compared with the bigness of the Rockies in the background, but with the hoisted oar, he also appears confident and victorious. The image conveys the paradoxes of childhood, and the play effectively toys with the ways in which an individual evades, confronts, and reinterprets the past with the hope of forgiving oneself and those who have done her or him harm. This act of grace, as Moran would say, is the tricky part.

The Tricky Part
Through December 16
The Barrow Group Mainstage Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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