When I was in my early teens and an aspiring actress, I read a book by Richard Boleslavsky titled Acting: The First Six Lessons. As I remember, one of these lessons is about a young actress who's been cast as Ophelia. Although she has found the necessary emotion in herself, the performance still isn't working. The director has told her that for some reason, her weeping -- though entirely sincere -- is embarrassing, rather than moving, to her listeners. Boleslavsky watches this actress at work, then suggests that she has captured Ophelia's essence but is bringing the character to the stage naked. To connect with her audience, she must clothe Ophelia. What does he mean by this? Ophelia would not have carried her body or gestured or spoken as this young twentieth-century woman does, Boleslavsky suggests. Her hand might have been slimmer: Perhaps the actress could curve hers a little to suggest this slimness. Her posture was undoubtedly more erect. When the actress has thought through and adopted these particularities, they will become the clothing for Ophelia's naked emotion.
Of course, Boleslavsky wrote his book long before the current craze for confession -- the endless memoirs, the talk shows, Princess Diana going on television some time before her death to share her thoughts of suicide and the wrongs she suffered at the hands of Prince Charles. Very few of these confessions concern joyous events or moments of intellectual revelation. Instead, therapists and inspirational writers like Julia Cameron (The Artist's Way) encourage us to sift through our pasts in search of ancient hurts, assuring us that what we uncover will free both our hearts and our creativity. Marry that to America's odd response to sexuality -- we're at once one of the most prudish and one of the most sexualized countries on earth -- and it's no wonder we're obsessed with stories about incest and childhood sexual abuse. The Tricky Part, which won an Obie and is currently playing at Curious Theatre, is the story of Martin Moran's molestation by an older man at the age of twelve and the sad, confusing three-year relationship that followed, in which love and hate twisted endlessly around each other like a double helix.
Let me be clear: It is heinous and evil to molest a child. It can take a lifetime for a molested child to recover -- if full recovery is possible at all -- and it may be important for such children to tell their stories as adults and for others to hear them. But that doesn't make the recounting of them art.
There are a lot of good things about The Tricky Part. It's well written, humorous and sometimes insightful. It's very well...acted? Is that the word? Because Moran isn't acting, exactly. He's telling his own story, and while this adds an immediacy to the performance, it also created -- at least for me -- a faint patina of embarrassment. The kind of embarrassment you feel when someone you don't know very well starts telling you about her sex life: Are you sure you want me to hear this?
I couldn't help wondering if the same words might not have had an entirely different effect if I'd found them in the pages of a book, away from the living presence of the actor/performer, which is live theater's glory and also its Achilles heel. Or if the text were spoken by another actor. Because while good actors give themselves unstintingly to their roles, the figure they present on stage is always both them and not them. The actor supplies raw emotion, as Boleslavsky's Ophelia did. The text supplies the words and action, the time period, the location. Eccentricities. The character comes to you clothed.
The Tricky Part begins with Martin Moran simply speaking to the audience. There's no sense of a fourth wall at all as he moves from friendly palaver into his prepared text. And this text is really quite wonderful for a while. I loved the description of his Catholic boyhood, his pride in being part of a school called Christ the King, his descriptions of the nuns, one of whom sounded as if her throat was always clogged with "grief or cheese," another who produced beautiful looping gggggs on the blackboard until the day she silently went mad mid-g. These anecdotes show beautifully how the mystical and the everyday intertwine in the mind of a child.
Tension builds as Moran describes his visit to the veterans' hospital where his molester, whom he calls Bob Kominsky, lives, now sickly and afflicted with diabetes. Then comes the inevitable flashback to the life-changing event itself, which occurred on a camping expedition when Kominsky -- who had up to that point been a kindly influence on the young Moran, providing the attention his parents withheld and revealing to him the wonders of nature -- slid open the zipper of the boy's sleeping bag.
Now the light on stage fades, Moran's face becomes shadowy, and the play starts to feel like a therapy session. What Moran reveals is worth knowing: He makes us understand just how deep a violation it is to steal a child's innocence, as well as all the confusion, rage, hurt and, yes, love and desire he felt toward his tormenter. But there are only two roles for someone hearing a therapy session: therapist or intruder, and I wanted neither of them. And despite Moran's charm, humor and flashes of wisdom, I sensed just a trace of off-putting self-pity in the piece. What is it but self-pity when you iconize a photograph of yourself as a "fine-boned boy" -- Moran's term -- and ask the audience to mourn that boy's lost innocence with you?
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