This is not just any Catholic boy’s autobiography. Actor, singer and dancer Martin (sometimes “Marty”) has been a major Broadway star with extensive credits, playing Huck Finn in Roger Miller’s Big River and Zonker in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury. When the stage version of The Tricky Part appeared in 2004 it won an Obie, just as the book version the following year was widely lauded. Moran has also been a pal of Kitchen Theatre artistic director Rachel Lampert.
But the play, running under 90 minutes, has been performed widely in recent years by companies lacking any connection to Moran. The actor playing Moran, tall, bald Carl Danielsen, bears no physical resemblance to the shorter, fully coifed author, but he speaks all lines in the first person. The author could not have asked for a better imposter to deliver the gentle irony, humor without rancor.
One-man autobiographical shows written by actors are commonplace at venues like the New York Fringe Festival. Usually the actor is trying to provide himself or herself with work, inserting lines that allow him or her to display some unique tricks, such as hard-to-do accents. Already Tricky Part is ahead of the game. Not only does it take us on a roller coaster of emotions while shifting tones, but it teases out its larger themes with foreshadowing.
The narrator tells us early on that there is a wasting hulk of a man, Bob Commiskey, in a Las Vegas hospital who must be confronted. Something ugly their way came 30 years previously, but we’re not going to get to it right away.
For the first half-hour or so, The Tricky Part is a nostalgic comedy, especially devoted to the somewhat baroque tastes of old-fashioned Catholicism. Danielsen/Moran starts by working the crowd, remembering the kinds of names parishes had, like Our Lady of Pity and Precious Blood. Moran grew up in Denver and was a proud member of Christ the King parish and enjoyed identifying himself as such when speaking on the phone. He recalls with pleasure learning the stories of the lives of the saints, especially his own. The original St. Martin was so generous that he ripped apart his cloak so that he could share it with a beggar. And it was his good fortune that the beggar turned out to be God.
The often choleric Bill Donohue of the Catholic League can rest easy here because Moran remembers nearly all religious teachers so fondly. There was the pious but cool nun who advised, “It is through discipline that transcendence enters our life.” Or the Irishborn priest whose sex-education talk depicted how many potential souls might be found in a man’s expressed seed.
It is not until the last quarter of the narrative that we face up to what happened with Bob Commiskey. Extemporized memory ceases as Moran turns to a student notebook where the author has written out in detail what happened, ensuring accuracy. Director Sara Lampert Hoover turns off the stage lights and leaves only one harsh beam, as one would expect at an interrogation. Bob, the molester, was not a teacher or a member of the clergy but instead a potential seminarian and trusted counselor. Boys were prepared to like him because as a Vietnam War veteran he told exciting stories.
We see the moment coming when the camp bully named George goads Moran to think it is manlier to sleep naked. Knowing this, counselor Bob approaches only one sleeping bag. In describing what happens, an intercrural, non-penetrative assault, Moran avoids all street language, clinical terms or any Lady Chatterley euphemisms. Still, there is no problem in following the action, much as we really do not want to hear it.
When the light comes back on, Moran takes a more informal tone to relate the follow-up, how long the abuse lasted, plus two suicide attempts and scars that continue to smart.
Moran avoids all self-celebration and cites only later training rather than the subsequent acclaim. Yet his unspoken success is part of the story. We leave the theater knowing he made it.
This production runs through April 10. See Times Table for information.