Review: Reliving a Childhood Interrupted in ‘The Tricky Part’

It is difficult, at first, to see the 12-year-old boy of the photograph in the middle-aged man on the stage. They are both in our line of vision for the entirety of the Barrow Group’s revival of Martin Moran’s beautiful and harrowing “The Tricky Part,” which opened on Sunday night, and it’s impossible not to compare them.

The beaming, round-cheeked kid in the framed picture — it is spotlighted on a small table when the audience arrives — exudes an intoxicating innocence. He is in a kayak, hoisting an oar above his head, and his delight seems as radiant as sunshine. It’s one of those images that make people pine for their preadolescent years, when pleasure could be taken simply, thoughtlessly.

The man that boy has become is lean, angular and painstakingly thoughtful, with the polished charm of a professional raconteur. That’s Mr. Moran, the writer and entire cast of “The Tricky Part.” He is here to commune and connect with the smiling subject of the photograph, who had just been coerced into a relationship — with a 30-year-old man who took this very picture — that would define and maim the rest of his life.

In the 14 years since I first saw Mr. Moran perform “The Tricky Part,” the memoir of sexual abuse has become an increasingly crowded genre in literature and theater. Yet this account of a Roman Catholic boyhood interrupted — and derailed — retains a luminous, novelistic complexity that sets it apart from similar tales of stolen childhoods.

It is, in its way, a mystery story, in the richest sense. We know, soon enough, all the whos, whats and wheres of the crime committed here. But there is no simple formula to explain the why behind it, or its endless repercussions. As Mr. Moran notes, wondering how to describe his connection to the man who was his lover — if that is indeed the word — for three years, “Definitions fail, bleed one into the other.”

Such troubling ambiguity is scarcely in evidence in the opening of moments of “The Tricky Part,” directed with delicacy and deliberation by Seth Barrish. The house lights are left on when Mr. Moran takes the stage. He registers at first as an amiable host with an amusing line of patter about growing up Catholic in Denver.

He asks if there are people with a similar background in the audience, and proceeds with anecdotes — about schoolteacher nuns and priests, both censorious and inspirational — he presumes will be familiar to them. But in these ostensibly blithe stories, Mr. Moran is describing a worldview, as well as a world, that informs every aspect of the story that follows, and it is equally steeped in guilt and wonder.

The expected eccentric nun recollections are never merely amusing character sketches. They percolate quietly with the sense that people are ultimately unknowable, and a fierce, cartoonlike schoolteacher, Sister Agatha, becomes a figure whose dramatic disappearance from her students’ lives is never explained.

Even the surrounding Colorado landscape, which exists in what is called, in geographic terms, “a disturbed region,” seems neither solid nor enduringly fixed. Mr. Moran quotes one of his science teachers, a German-Irish priest, as saying, “A rock, a mountain may look at rest, but they most certainly are not. Everything is filled with ceaseless subatomic motion.”

That’s a good description of how “The Tricky Part” operates in performance. (Mr. Moran used the same material as the basis for his 2005 book of the same title, but the story’s insistence on the simultaneity of past and present only deepens when experienced live, in real time.)

As agreeably comfortable as the show feels in its opening moments, there is also a sense that the straightforward narrative here is being tugged at and undermined by forces we don’t grasp yet. A silence always yawns beneath the chatter, and as an actor, Mr. Moran makes sure we acknowledge and respect what is unspoken and perhaps undefinable.

The lights have been growing dimmer, without our really knowing it, as Mr. Moran keeps talking. (Elizabeth Mak’s lighting is essential to the production’s power.) And when he finally tells us about the night that Bob — a camp counselor and Vietnam veteran — took the 12-year-old Martin into his sleeping bag in a mountain ranch house, the theater is almost entirely dark.

Only Mr. Moran’s face is illuminated. And at that moment, there is no question that it is also the face of the boy in the picture. It is not the face of a victim — or not merely that — but of someone experiencing a kind of horrible apotheosis that feels absolutely natural and deeply, totally wrong.

That’s a dangerous contradiction to live with. Mr. Moran assesses the damage his relationship with Bob inflicted on his life in brief, blunt references to two suicide attempts, years in therapy and a period of being “sexually compulsive.” With an artist’s appreciation of reticence, he doesn’t need to say more.

When Mr. Moran was 42, he got in touch with Bob, by then a resident of a veteran’s hospital in Los Angeles. His account of their meeting takes place in sunlight. Bob has changed from the strapping, athletic figure the young Martin once knew into a white-haired invalid “who looks to be somebody’s grandmother.” That does not mean the older man no longer has a grip on the younger one.

I won’t tell you what they say to each other, except to note that it is both commonplace and shocking, as tragedy tends to be when it’s embedded in the pedestrian details of everyday life. It is not a scene of resolution or closure or even full explanation.

The final image finds Mr. Moran looking once again at the 12-year-old in the picture. Four decades after the photograph was taken, and 14 years after “The Tricky Part” was first staged, the dialogue between the two continues with full eloquent and ambivalent force. It is unlikely to end — ever.

The Tricky Part

Tickets Through Dec. 16 at the Barrow Group, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. Credits By Martin Moran; directed by Seth Barrish; lighting by Elizabeth Mak; production stage manager, Stephanie Clark; director of production, Porter Pickard. Presented by the Barrow Group, Seth Barrish and Lee Brock, co-artistic directors, Robert Serrell, executive director.

Cast Martin Moran.

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