The Art of Abuse
How long does it take for fresh tragedy to become the stuff of art?
To judge from recent cases, the gestation period seems to hover between two and three years: 1982 brought mainstream media's first mention of the new "gay cancer"; 1985 saw the debut of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart and William Hoffman's As Is, the first plays about AIDS. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming; in 2000, Moisés Kaufman's The Laramie Project opened off-Broadway.
In 2002, the Catholic sex abuse scandal made headlines around the world, positing 2004–2005 as the time bracket for the clergy abuse scandal to return as art. And so it goes: The 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama was awarded to John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, charting a nun's investigation of a priest's alleged sex crimes.
But a year before Doubt's triumph, a solo play, Martin Moran's The Tricky Part, was making big waves around the subject of Catholic sex abuse. In the early 1970s, when Moran was 12, he was drawn into a sexual relationship with an adult male, a former Catholic camp counselor who maintained the criminally illicit "affair" for three years, leaving Moran with questions to ponder (and demons to conquer) for the rest of his life. Inspired by the coverage of the Boston scandal, Moran decided to track down his former abuser.
This reckoning—along with the drama that preceded, fueled, and survived it—is at the heart of The Tricky Part, the solo show that scored Moran a 2004 Obie award, a book deal with Beacon Press, and a slew of touring dates, including a month-long run kicking off this week at Intiman.
The Tricky Part has drawn raves for both the script and Moran's performance—with a story this strong, one doesn't need much extraneous drama, and Moran, whose acting resumé ranges from Anne Bogart experiments to big Broadway musicals, keeps things simple. "I'm still for 80 percent of the show," Moran tells me. "It's very Spalding Gray." He's phoning from a bookstore in Washington, D.C., where he'll soon be signing copies of his book, and when I mention my weekend spent reading it, he's unexpectedly abashed. "That's a new thing for me," says Moran, acknowledging the prospect of an audience already schooled in the facts of his life as a new level of exposure for this couldn't-be-more-personal story. While reading The Tricky Part, I couldn't help wondering how much of its vast story would make it to the stage, but Moran makes it clear that the book and the play exist in different worlds, with much of the directness of the book left artfully elliptical onstage.
As for The Tricky Part's real-life antagonist: "I haven't had any contact with him since the final meeting in the book," says Moran, who's unsure if his former lover/abuser remains alive. "It's amazing how much closure this play has given me." ■
Brendan Kiley is on vacation. He'll be back next week.