Martin Moran was groomed and repeatedly sexually assaulted by Vietnam veteran and Catholic boys’ camp counselor, Bob, from the age 12–15. Thirty years later, Bob reached out to Moran for a meeting, and Moran obliged. In The Tricky Part, currently running at The Barrow Group, Moran breathtakingly, heartbreakingly, and exquisitely recounts—alone, on stage—the story of his sexual awakening and his adulthood encounter with the man who forced it upon him.
The current production, directed by Seth Barrish, is a revival of its premiere run—also at The Barrow Group—in 2004, which earned an Obie Award, as well as nominations for two Drama Desk Awards, an Outer Critics Circle Award, and a GLAAD Award. In 2005, Moran wrote a memoir based on the play, entitled The Tricky Part: A Boy’s Story of Sexual Trespass, a Man’s Journey to Forgiveness. The book won the 2005 Lambda Non-Fiction Prize, the Barnes and Noble Discover Award, and the Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction.
Moran—also known for his roles in the musicals Floyd Collins, A Man of No Importance, Titanic, and Spamalot—spoke to me on the phone the morning after I saw The Tricky Part on December 1. What follows is a condensed transcript of our discussion.
Is there anything that’s changed about your relationship with what happened to you between the original production of The Tricky Part and this revival?
Well, I was working on the material, in one way or another, for a very long time. And the play initially opened Off-Broadway in 2004, because this is a revival, of course, 14, 15 years later. And the fuller book came out the following year, in 2005. But initially, the play was the first thing to become public.
But absolutely. You know, I’m 15 years older. There’s a kind of paradox about writing a deeply personal memoir and that is that the more deeply you go into it, the more you realize that the questions inside of it simply become deeply human questions. It’s not so much “Marty’s story.” And I would say that what’s changed in my relationship in 15 years is that the story is not so raw and close as it was when I first excavated it many years ago, and that the performing of it—and my relationship to it—is much, much freer now, because I don’t really own the story so much. It’s a piece of work that encapsulates a lot of complex questions, and it’s really more the joy of communing around those questions that has come much more to the fore. And that the sense of it being a personal, “Marty” story has become more and more and more distant in the most wonderful way.
Yes, of course, it came from me, and it’s my story, but I think that the act of making art—and the act of offering it to the world this way—that one of the gifts of that act is that, really, you’ve become much freer around it, because it’s not really about me. It’s a piece of work that has a job to do, that is trying to be of service, that’s trying to look at difficult questions. So it’s a lot lighter to perform now.
Do you feel that it was a more raw performance experience for you in 2004?
My relationship with the story was definitely more fraught. I was still spiritually… and, well, one is all your life spiritually coming to terms with the difficult things in your life. But at that point, it was the first time I was so publicly presenting a piece of work as an artist, but it was also, clearly… I was telling a story about really difficult sexual matters and religious matters, and I definitely felt a lot of ego fear around exposure: that Martin Moran, the actor, the musical Broadway guy… you know, “Oh my God, [chuckles] he’s talking about these things.” And there’s a level of, you know, just to put it frankly, there’s some level of fear and exposure and… You know, when one is dealing with memoir and yourself, you’re in the territory of shame. You’re struggling with your own shame, which is, of course, a very human thing. But I would say that my relationship with this story was much more… I struggled. I really did struggle—physically, initially, first—with fear: a lot more fear about that level of personal exposure.
You talk a little bit in the show about how you turned your anger inward. Now I wonder, beyond that—and certainly, we heard a lot about your difficulty in confronting Bob and trying to work with that anger—what your journey has been with that anger, and also, do you relate to that anger any differently now than you did in the past?
Well, it’s interesting you ask, because after I did The Tricky Part, the next project—the next thing that came and gripped me—manifested as an Off-Broadway solo play, and a full memoir, called All the Rage. And the book grew out of yet another exploration that came after The Tricky Part, which was the exploration of anger. So to answer your question shortly, I could just glibly say to you, “There’s a book to read and there’s a play to read,” [laughs] because the question you ask is—like all the good questions, and the human questions—is deeply complex.
But I would say that understanding one’s relationship with anger becomes profoundly important. And one of the questions that I was asked often after I performed The Tricky Part, and after I wrote the book, the full memoir, was, “Why aren’t you more angry? Where’s your anger?” And I was haunted by the question, I realized, because I thought, “Am I avoiding?” or, “Is it buried in me somewhere?” And, like all questions, I think it ended up being very, very complex, so much so that I wrote about it—which is how I try to get to the bottom of things—and so I wrote this book called All the Rage, which examines the energy of anger, the place of anger, also the danger of anger, and the fuel, and the positive parts of anger.
And ultimately, I don’t know how to answer this in a nutshell, but I think that the only way we move toward ultimate liberation from the things that grip us is by going toward every difficult pain that arises up inside. You know, like, “Oh my god, what is this anger? Am I turning it on myself? And am I self-loathing?” And what I realized is, Of course there’s anger. And I have moments of feeling betrayed by my community, by the frickin’ Catholic church, by my family… And the deeper you move into it, again, you acknowledge that.
But at the same time, the journey always, it seems to me, lands you at a place where you’re trying to find compassion for yourself, your deepest self, as well as every single person involved who’s had a role in the becoming of you. And there’s a certain point at which acknowledging the anger, and feeling it, and expressing it—in ways that aren’t destructive to yourself—is so important. And there’s a way, again, which I guess [is] part of getting older, and part of hopefully getting wiser, and part of the journey, [is] realizing, ultimately, we are all one, in the Buddhist sense, in the spirit sense, that what my entire book about anger led me to was realizing, “Yeah, I’m angry. And, Bob is me. And, that jerky bishop that I knew—who was so sick and awful—is me. We’re one.” And I don’t want mean to be woo-woo about this, but anger’s an amazing force. And Gandhi talks about it, Mandela talks about it. They talk about, “Yeah, of course I’m frickin’ angry. But it’s what I do with that anger that matters. Do I try to harness the energy of that anger, ultimately, into healing and service, or do I burn my own house? Do I just burn myself up?”
Because you really get to the point where you realize that anger is really giving your power to somebody else. It’s taking your life away. But it also can be an incredible fuel for social service, for like, “Hey, I gotta go protest. Why are they locking immigrants up at the airport? Let’s get to the frickin’ airport and say something.” It’s a very very complex thing that you asked. And in the afterword of The Tricky Part, I write about this—and I also write, of course, in the book, All the Rage—I write about this exact thing, because it… there’s no easy way to answer. [laughs]
Does it feel like the tenor of the moment is different for you in asking these questions of an audience, now as opposed to in 2004?
Yeah, definitely. I would say that there is a different tenor right now. I definitely feel it.
The Tricky Part is obviously not a dialectic. It’s not a diatribe. It’s not a rant. It’s a complete swimming in complexity. You know, there is a way in which I am coming from some kind of practice, or point of view, as a Buddhist. There’s a fundamental way in which my play is a piece of work, and I don’t know how it interacts politically or culturally, or in terms of activism. All I know is, I don’t know anything, really, except the calling to write about, and attempt to answer, unanswerable questions, and to try to point to unsayable truths about the mystery of being in a human body. I’m just not giving a lecture. And I do see that what’s going on in the newspapers is so important, and it feels to me that, clearly, The Tricky Part must be functioning, as a piece of work, differently now than it did 15 or 20 years ago, because things have radically burst open in the last couple of years. How to qualify that or how to describe it? I don’t know.
There was a point at which I thought about rewriting things and I thought about, like, “Oh, I want to write a thesis on the #MeToo movement” and then I realized, All I can do is just do the play, and let the questions, and the hauntingness that you’re feeling, or that anyone else is feeling, just be part of the complex conversation. So I don’t have any answers for you. [chuckles]
It feels different. No question. Because look: I mean, everyone’s talking about power and sex, and power inequality, and women are finding their voice, and queer people are finding their voice, and I’m so fucking glad about that, and I’m so proud. And whatever my part is in it, it’s been to write what comes to me genuinely, and that’s what the play is. That’s what this play is, anyway.
You said earlier that for you, the healing is in writing and getting to the center of things. What did that look like for you, what did that feel like for you: That process from living with this and working through it with—presumably a therapist—and then writing and performing?
Well, for me, [in] the story and even the stories, now, that I’m writing (and I’ve moved into other forms; I’m writing a full-length play, a multi-character play), there’s a way in which, way back then, in my thirties, it showed up. It shows up as an imperative, meaning it’s demanding to be dealt with.
And in this case, the demand came in the form of language. And it came in the form of pen in hand, notebook. It happened first when it was… literally, I was studying a script of Shakespeare and I was making notes in the margins of the script. And suddenly my pen literally went, “What happened when you were 12? Tell the truth.”
Oh my God.
It was like the subconscious was… And you know, it was like, “Whoa! What’s going on?” And little by little, and I mean little by little, in a very journalistic, very private very, like, “This is just for me… Oh, yeah. There was that fence.” And then, “Oh, right, the tractor. That was red, and I was standing on the back of the tractor.” And then, “What happened that night?” And da-da-da-da-da. So— and this is in my early thirties, when it’s 20 years later. And I’m realizing, on some level, that something I have absolutely locked away is demanding… If I’m going to move towards some kind of health or some kind of… I was trying to figure out why the past had its hands around my throat. And so the imperative was, I figured, there was a part of me that felt if I could lay out the narrative, I could try to understand what happened.
And in trying to understand what happened, I could change my relationship to it, which in fact is what storytelling can do. There’s a way of gaining space around it, and freedom, and perspective, and the possibility of forgiveness, primarily for myself. So it showed up very privately, and very, very… once it took hold, I couldn’t not write it. If I didn’t write it, I was not gonna be a healthy person; I was not going to become who I’m meant to be in the world. I had to do it. There was no choice, or I was going to live hiding and die.
I don’t know. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but there’s a way in which there’s that thing in the Gnostic Gospels, you know, with whoever that guy Jesus was, or whatever, said, you know, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you [will] kill you.” And it felt that way. Period.
What was behind your decision to put that photo Bob took of you in your piece?
I was reading a part of a book I was working on, before this was going to be a play. And I was going up the street to read a section of it because somebody had asked me to read some of my book at a festival. And that picture had kind of been hidden in my closet, and I’d pulled it out a couple times, and my husband had seen it and he’d always admired it, and he didn’t really know the story behind it.
But suddenly I was kind of telling him a little bit about it, and I was going up to Seth Barrish, the director’s, house, to read like 15 minutes of the book. And Henry just said to me, off-the-cuff, basically, said, “You should just put that photo next to while you read that.” That was my husband. And that stuck and it grew in meaning, and then, of course, it grew to become a kind of coup de théâtre: This lovely, this amazing, triumphant photograph that, then, is revealed during the course the play, is taken by Bob. And so, like everything else, it was a bit of a mystery and a bit of a chance, that my husband—who’s brilliant, in every way—just happened to say that. He has a way of saying just the right thing, you know, at certain times. [chuckles] So then it grew.
You know, it just stuck.
The Tricky Part opened on December 2, 2018, and continues its run at The Barrow Group (312 West 36th Street) December 6–10, 13–16 at 7pm; and on December 8 and 16 at 3pm. Tickets are $45–$65 ($25 for students) and can be obtained by visiting barrowgroup.org or calling (866) 811-4111.
Photos by Edward T. Morris.