The long overdue #MeToo movement has empowered countless women, and more than a few men, to confront, if not avenge, their abusers and reclaim their dignity.
But too often, the narrative reported by the mass media is reduced to black and white: the perpetrator (an evil man) makes unwanted sexual advances and the target (an innocent victim of lesser size or status) feels powerless to fight back. And while this is largely true, there’s usually more churning just below the surface.
As the title suggests, “The Tricky Part,” a solo piece written and performed by the accomplished Martin Moran, examines gray areas — of relationships, religious dogma, sexuality, and sexual abuse. In this case, how a 30-year-old counselor called Bob Kominsky molested Moran at a religious summer camp when he was merely 12. And how the sexual relationship continued for more than three years until the boy finally mustered the courage to break free.
The preshow soundtrack features classic James Taylor songs that perfectly capture the tender, albeit discomfiting, mood of the piece. Strangely enough, “Shower the People You Love With Love” takes on a sinister dimension in this context (“If it feels nice, don’t think twice”).
The brilliance of this unsettling, poignant drama lies in its understated, nonchalant approach. The soft-spoken Moran registers not as an actor but a friend among friends, as if sitting by a campfire relating a frank, sometimes comic, sometimes harrowing true tale. He even interacts with audience members from time to time. Despite the combustive subject matter, histrionics have no place here.
The production, directed with remarkable economy by Seth Barrish, courtesy of the Barrow Group, has no set to speak of. The space is a black void, containing only a tall wooden stool and a large framed photo of a young boy. The richly detailed monologue works overtime to illuminate a picture of the events for us.
At the top of the show, Moran confirms that the boy in the photo is himself at age 12, in 1972, standing in a kayak wearing a bathing suit and life vest, holding an oar above his head. The pond is nestled in the Colorado Rockies, a couple of hours from his Denver home, and we later learn the shot was snapped by his abuser. The pose could be perceived as vulnerable or triumphant or somewhere in between.
Not that “The Tricky Part” should be viewed strictly as a confessional. It’s more like an investigation, the author asserts, of a paradox expressed through one man’s fraught journey. It’s a story he generally kept locked up inside for years, until he decided to face his truth and write this play.
The story ricochets across time, from the present to the 1970s when Moran was an awkward misfit at a Catholic school, where they taught that masturbation was a mortal sin because his seed contained thousands of “hopeful Catholics” that must not be laid to waste. It also jumps to 2002, when he tracks down Bob, now elderly and infirm, in a veterans’ convalescent home in Los Angeles, and confronts him.
Indeed, Moran knew from the start that what Bob was doing was profoundly wrong.
“It was your fault. You were the adult. I was a child and I did not have consent to give,” he said.
On the other hand, he admits complicity, saying he chose not to scream, not to stop him.
“It was as though he was touching me into being, and I was dying to find out who I was,” Moran said.
The tricky part is that Bob proved a sort of father figure (Moran’s own father was alcoholic and distant), taking him on camping trips, teaching him about geodesic domes, how to slide down glaciers, and how to birth calves. Moran, who has since moved to Manhattan with his partner, Henry, makes clear that he believes he was always gay, long before Bob laid a hand on him.
If you are wondering if Moran is jumping on the #MeToo bandwagon with this piece, think again. The play was first produced in 2003, later moving to New York and snagging an Obie Award, and it spawned a memoir of the same name, plus a sequel of sorts, titled “All the Rage.” You might assume that, after tackling his demons head-on, by now he would have come to terms with the trespasses against him.
Yet in the final moments of “The Tricky Part” it becomes evident that his goal is not so much confession or inquiry, but a further attempt at catharsis and salvation, to achieve a kind of grace. It is our privilege to play a small part in helping this courageous, gifted artist take another step closer to healing.
THE TRICKY PART | The Barrow Group | TBG Mainstage Theater, 312 W. 36th St., third fl.| Through Dec. 16: Thu.-Mon. at 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 8 & 16 at 3 p.m. | $45-$65 at Barro