AT FIRST GLANCE it would seem as though the subject matter of The Tricky Part renders the play unfit for the faint of heart, but the Kitchen Theater’s thoughtful treatment of this one-person monologue evokes more contemplation than squeamishness. Actor Carl Danielson delivers Marty Moran’s coming-of-age narration with skill and a certain careful lightness, allowing audience members to ponder the nuance of the story rather than demanding pity or affronting them with the wailing melodrama that often accompanies victims’ stories of too-soon sexual initiation rites.
In a one-person show with a spare set (just a rug, a stool, and a piece of furniture that has a photo of the character as a young boy), all the attention is focused on two formal elements: the proficient acting and the streamlined story, which flashes back and forth from the character’s childhood in Catholic school, leading up to his sensual encounter with an older man, and his visit as an adult to that same man in a VA hospital years later.
The show opens with some base Catholic jokes which might be amusing to those completely unfamiliar with Catholic culture, but simply listing the names of Catholic schools and churches and tee-heeing at the references to blood and conception seemed to me a little flat, a bit literal for a mature, thinking crowd. I assume the intent is to set a humorous tone, and maybe tie into the kind of humor a 12-year-old boy might find comical, and if so, these quips are indeed successful at loosening up the audience and drawing them into the entry point of the story.
Marty’s childhood stories are familiar; he is baffled by the obscure teachings of the Church and eager to gain experience in the adult world. This experience is finally offered to him by Bob, an adult counselor he meets at a Catholic camp who helps him learn more about his changing body. As Marty moves toward the literal and figurative climax of the story, the audience grapples with the young, strong Bob of yesterday and the frail, feeble Bob of the present day. This space between the past and the present creates tension that adds momentum and reminds us that all of today’s abusers are tomorrow’s elderly and infirmed.
Where the plot veers into unfamiliar territory is with the pleasure and longing involved in the depiction of Marty’s deflowering and in his subsequent relationship with Bob. At this point, the lights go down and Danielson sits on a stool illuminated by a very bright light that imitates moonlight. He reads the scene out of a journal, invoking a very intimate feel, like stories told around a campfire. Bob’s erection makes him feel special: “him rising out of his cotton briefs, pulsing,” Marty says, “is for me.” And then: “Better than a gold star or a straight A.” When Bob engages the boy in oral sex, Marty says, “I pushed into the dark, pushed thinking that this is what I prayed for all day long. Relief. And thanks be to God, if he was anywhere anymore to be thanked.”
Far from being terrified by the encounter, Marty is energized by it, and is only filled with hate when Bob says what they shared was love, and Marty suddenly gets the sense that he is only one in a long string of boys that Bob has been with. Marty is repeatedly, even as an adult facing the elder Bob, rankled by the idea that he is “not the only one.” That Bob mourned Marty’s absence when Marty finally left him at the age of 15 provides the adult Marty with some comfort, hinting at a deeper bond, but this relational ambiguity is shattered when it is revealed that Bob went to jail for one of his other dalliances. Then it is clearer that we are witnessing the tale of a crime rather than a confusing spring/autumn romance.
“I was too young to be lit up with desire like that,” Marty later muses, too young to know such feelings of passion and guilt, which he speculates later led him to engage in compulsive sexual behaviors like unprotected cruising. Other, more shocking and complicated details are released and glossed over along the way, such as the fact that Bob had a wife and Marty sometimes had sex with both of them because Bob was worried that Marty might be gay. I found myself wishing the story would have veered off its neat, tight course and into that messy, fertile, and potentially rich area of subject matter, but it was not to be; The Tricky Part stays faithful to the story of Bob and Marty, more faithful than Bob himself was to Marty, as Marty repeatedly bemoans.
For all its references to Catholicism, the story doesn’t penetrate or explore its mysteries in any substantial or compelling way. Marty’s references to God seem just as compulsive as his sexuality, and in fact, sometimes they are indistinguishable (as in: “my God, my God,” etc.). Themes that are introduced are never pursued; for example, one nun clucks that discipline leads to transcendence, but we see neither in The Tricky Part – it remains solidly rational, descriptive, highly intelligent in its depiction of the dynamics of sex between adults and minors, and ultimately quite earthy.
One could argue that Marty himself must have exercised discipline to have a successful acting and writing career and that in itself is a kind of transcendence, and I concur, but we don’t see this explored in the writing of play itself: we don’t see Marty sweating it out day after day, year after year, fighting destructive urges in favor of creative ones. The one Christian concept that Marty does truly seem to have absorbed and processed is that of grace, which he mentions near the end, describing as “the gift from beyond that moves us to salvation.” (If salvation is a loaded word, imagine “healing” instead, perhaps, or transformation.) Marty prayed for grace to let go of Bob, but ultimately realizes that what he needs is to let go of his inner 12-year-old. That, he concludes at the play’s end, he does not yet know how to do.
Danielle Winterton is a fiction writer, an Editor at Large for The Ithaca Post, and a co-founding editor of Essays & Fictions.