Friday, February 01, 2008

Ambiguity of Truth: 'The Tricky Part'

To my surprise, until Wednesday night, I had not seen a show in the smaller space of Signature Theatre's new building, which opened over a year ago. It turns out that the ARK (named for philanthropists Arlene and Robert Kogod) is a little gem. Its acoustics are near perfect; although I was seated as far from the performance area as one could be, I heard every word and even the sound of pages being turned in a journal.

The occasion was the opening night of The Tricky Part, a transfer from off-Broadway starring its playwright, Martin Moran. This is my review for The Metro Herald.

Ambiguity of Truth:
‘The Tricky Part’ Debuts at Signature Theatre

Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Martin Moran’s The Tricky Part is a tightly-wound bundle of ambivalence waiting to burst.

By choosing to address, in an entertainment venue, an already touchy subject – adult-child sex – Moran shows a certain brand of courage. That he deftly tells his own story – as victim, survivor, explorer, prevailer – exhibits bravery of a signally remarkable form.

Moran’s Obie-award-winning one-man show opened on January 30 for a limited run at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, with the playwright in the lead.

The Tricky Part is not for everyone. Yet, despite its core subject matter, it offers laughs and tears to members of a variety of groups: people who went to Catholic schools, those who grew up in the suburbs, gay men, former campers and former paper boys, parents, people who spent their childhoods in the ‘60s or ‘70s, and those who have survived emotional trauma, to name a non-exclusive few.

As the play begins, houselights bathe the audience, and it seems from the outset that this will continue, with the effect of sitting in a college lecture hall rather than a black-box theatre. Eventually, gradually, nearly imperceptibly, the lighting changes to focus on the playing area, until – when the play reaches its dramatic apogee – a single spotlight enhalos Moran with a soft beam.

At that beginning, Moran, alone on stage, puts the audience at ease – though we do not know this is his purpose – by engaging them in banter, reminding them to turn off their cell phones, asking a few questions, and riffing on the audience members’ replies.

The result is, from that point forward, this highly structured, dramatically intense play seems to be improvised on the spot. Moran makes us believe that he is just telling us a story off the cuff, and that he is taking us through his memories with no more deliberateness than if he was chatting with a stranger at an airport bar during a flight delay.

The early part of the play relates life in Catholic schools in suburban Denver in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Moran’s vivid word portraits of priests and nuns will evoke a smile and a chuckle from anyone, like him, who attended Catholic elementary schools of that era. (Moran alludes to, but does not dwell on, some of the social and cultural upheavals within the Church during those post-Vatican II years.)

The light humor of these early vignettes serves further to let down the audience’s guard for the emotional punch that is to come – his telling about the night when, at the age of 12, Moran unconsentingly began a three-year sexual relationship with a 30-year-old man.

Moran has an uncanny eye (and ear) for detail. His descriptions are so complete that one could easily close one’s eyes and, just by listening, be transported to the world built bit by bit by Moran’s words. With a little tweaking, The Tricky Part would be as equally effective as a radio play as it is as a one-man stage show.

Moran jumps forward three decades – to a time when the Church’s sexual abuse scandals were front-page news – and allows us to see his confrontation with his own abuser, an ex-seminarian.

Suffice it to say that Moran is himself unsure of how to think or how to feel about the events he reports. This ambivalence, rather than weakening his tale, actually strengthens and reinforces it, because it is the way that real people react to such situations in real life.

The Tricky Part explores a sort of “butterfly effect” that influences each of our lives. Moran points to innocuous moments and decisions that, in retrospect, lead to pivotal and sometimes explosive events that affected the entire course of his own life. He leads us, by extension, to think about our own paths that brought us to how we live, who we love, how we love, and why we choose this way or that.

And again, that butterfly effect embraces ambivalence. Moran’s story is one that should horrify and anger not just the audience who hears it but the person who tells it. Still, Moran, after years of struggle with his own ambiguous feelings, rejects anger for a nameless yet peaceable alternative.

Moran recognizes that those events that made him so miserable over time also had a profound – and paradoxically positive – hand in shaping who he is as a professional actor and playwright, as a son, as an uncle, as the steady partner of his longtime (same-sex) spouse. He looks at us pleadingly and asks if his life would have turned out differently if none of this had happened – if he hadn’t taken guitar lessons from Sister Christine, if he hadn’t worked a paper route, if he hadn’t gone to camp with the man who would violate his innocence.

The answer, he knows, is yes – and, not just different, his life could have been better or it could have been worse. The ambivalence is haunting yet palpable.

Interestingly, Moran avoids using words like “molest” or “abuse” in his 85-minute monologue. He reports the events in the life of his 12-year-old self as matter-of-factly as if he were telling us what he had for breakfast yesterday. He remembers, for himself as much as for us, those events in colorful detail and gives the audience the freedom to make up our own minds about the meaning of the picture he paints.

While some will see The Tricky Part as a story of overcoming trauma, a story of psychic healing, it is just as much a story about coming to terms with the contradictions we face – everyday choices, internal dilemmas, emotional bifurcations. The answer doesn’t always have to be yes or no, black or white. Sometimes the answer is yes and no. Sometimes the answer is grey.

Irish-born novelist Edna O’Brien recently told the Paris newspaper, Liberation, that “Happy people don’t write.”

Later elaborating on this remark during a BBC World Service discussion of her novel, The Country Girls, which was banned nearly half a century ago by Irish government censors and remains popular worldwide today, O’Brien explained that people with “normal” – by this she means quotidian -- lives don’t have (or take) the time or inclination to write. Contentment, which marks sanity in a person, does not breed creativity.

Saying that she is not unhappy but simply does not place happiness at the top of the totem pole of the things she values, O’Brien said further that, when a person writes, she throws everything into the mix: the good things, the bad things, the things that make you sad or angry. For this, she said, “you must be naked. Naked, naked, naked.”

Although he stands fully clothed on stage in The Tricky Part, Martin Moran is not just alone, but naked. His nakedness is the consequence of his own life’s journey, and that journey is splayed out in splendid nakedness for us, the audience, to observe and ponder.

The Tricky Part, written and performed by Martin Moran and directed by Seth Barrish, continues through February 17 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington. Show times are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Single tickets are $40 and are available through Ticketmaster at 703-573-7328 and through

For those so inclined, the longer version of The Tricky Part -- not the play, but the book that became the play -- is available for sale through

1 comment:

Jessica Bennett said...

You might be interested in Martin Moran's post at Beacon Broadside today, where he talks about adapting The Tricky Part into a film. It's a beautiful piece.


Jessica Bennett
Blog Editor, Beacon Broadside