Martin Moran Investigates His Inner Gentleness; Fiorello! Explores La Guardia’s Showy Side


Martin Moran’s new solo work, All the Rage (Peter J. Sharp Theater), records his paradoxical search for an anger he doesn’t feel. Moran has reasons to be angry, as you know if you’ve seen his earlier piece, the Obie Award–winning The Tricky Part, or read his memoir of the same name. In that piece, Moran described his sexual molestation, when he was 12, by a camp counselor, who subsequently spent a decade in jail on charges brought by another boy’s parents. The Tricky Part‘s largely gentle and forgiving tone turned its post-performance talkbacks into dramas every bit as riveting as the piece itself, with audience responses running the gamut from tearful confessions to vociferous confrontations.

All the Rage, in contrast, probably won’t provoke such extreme reactions. A reflective, discursive event, it rises to few emotional peaks in its journey across a wide range of autobiographical, spiritual, philosophical, and sociopolitical matters. As if unconsciously attempting to shore up its diffuseness, it employs much more apparatus: a globe, a chalkboard, maps, a symbolic backpack, and a projection screen on which an opaque projector and a MacBook alternately throw images. The Tricky Part was Moran’s story; this piece is his show-and-tell.

Luckily, Moran has items of interest to show and stories of interest to tell. And he has, along with the skills of a first-rate singing actor, the easygoing presence of a born storyteller: unhurried, genial, quietly extroverted. Paired with his performing abilities, his faith in the innate value of what he wants to convey makes him a reassuring travel companion, even on a loopy trip like this one. As he always seems to be going somewhere definite, you don’t mind tagging along.

And, though you don’t arrive anywhere in particular, you also don’t particularly regret the trip. In the course of trying to figure out why his anger seems less intense than other people’s, Moran recounts stories about his troubled relations with his stepmother, about his encounters with a variety of people in need, about people he’s observed, on subways or streets, who somehow do manage to express their anger. The most striking of these inset tales involves his effort to do some good for humanity: Volunteering for an organization that supplies assistance to refugees applying for political asylum, he finds himself working as translator while a doctor interviews a torture survivor from Chad. The power of the man’s history, and the dignity with which Moran narrates it, make All the Rage stand very tall for a moment.

That power and dignity also recall what made The Tricky Part so moving: the simple, sober recounting of horrifying events, without any emotional italicizing. Eschewing any implied comparison between their sufferings, Moran quietly recounts his bumbling attempts to befriend the man, whose somber refusal to hate his brutalizers becomes the evening’s moral touchstone.

The shadow hanging over this and other inset narratives, inevitably, is Moran’s awareness of how, in the aftermath of The Tricky Part, he was frequently accused of hiding his anger, or of having not yet come to terms with it. Possibly he hasn’t. The new piece contains a brief flashback to the earlier one, with an addendum—based on facts Moran only learned while performing The Tricky Part—that understandably makes him withdraw the tentative forgiveness he previously granted his abuser.

And yet this, too, isn’t exactly anger. Moran’s personality, though sharp-eyed and restlessly self-questioning, seems too mellow to contain the violent inner conflict that drives people to vent their fury. Even a harrowing moment when he’s obliged to view the dead body of his younger brother provokes him to sorrowful questioning, not rage. When he finally does lose his temper openly, it’s over something comically trivial: a cab driver ignoring his pedestrian right of way. His sense of anger’s empowering possibilities vanishes as quickly as it came.

In this, Moran represents many of us, whose capacity for ire is limited, who will gladly let the world be if it will only let us be, and curb the heartbreaking grief it causes others. He differs from us in having to carry inside the dark story he told in The Tricky Part, and also in possessing the charm that can make its less focused follow-up so likeable. That an inquiry into rage should leave behind such a mildly pleasant impression makes Moran a vivid illustration of how paradoxical human individuals are.

Few individual personalities have embodied New York City’s feistily contradictory spirit better than Fiorello H. La Guardia (1882–1947), the hero of the 1959 Broadway musical Fiorello!, revived in a concert staging by City Center Encores! last week. La Guardia began his political career as a Republican, bucking Tammany Hall’s corrupt Democratic machine. Then, when finally elected mayor in 1933, he infuriated his own party by allying himself with FDR’s New Deal Democrats.

A liberal by policy, La Guardia (Danny Rutigliano) was a tyrant by temperament, notorious for bullying his staff, and no stickler for civil liberties. In wartime, for fear of rowdiness among servicemen on leave, he shut down the city’s burlesque houses, thereby shattering a long-standing popular-entertainment tradition. And he won no civil libertarians’ hearts by allowing his licensing commissioner to hound the stage version of Dorothy Baker’s novel Trio, which depicts a lesbian relationship, out of its Broadway house.

Fiorello!‘s book, by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott (condensed for Encores! by Weidman’s playwright son, John), dodges La Guardia’s thornier tactics by stopping just before he becomes mayor, focusing on his pre-Depression work as a fiery anti-corruption, pro-workers’ rights crusader. A parallel thread charts his two-edged romance with his first wife, Thea (Kate Baldwin), who died tragically young, and his loyal longtime secretary, Marie (Erin Dilly), whom he ultimately married.

Crisp and fast-moving, the book offers sassy knowingness rather than depth. The show’s literary distinction comes largely from Sheldon Harnick’s witty, juicily playful lyrics, elegantly matched by Jerry Bock’s ear-catching or heart-tugging tunes. Audiences love “Little Tin Box,” the team’s hymn to the Seabury investigation, which propelled La Guardia’s predecessor, Jimmy Walker, out of office; I personally cherish “The Bum Won,” the polyphonic gem in which Republican ward heelers bemoan their failure to support La Guardia’s unexpectedly victorious run for Congress. It contains the hilarious self-exploding apothegm, “People can do what they want to / But I got a feeling it ain’t democratic.”

Encores! did only moderately well by Fiorello!, neither evoking nor obliterating memories of Abbott’s stylish original production, with its inventive use of newsreel footage, its ingenious sets by the Eckarts, and its graceful Peter Gennaro choreography. That was then. Here, Gary Griffin’s staging seemed cramped and awkward, choreographer Alex Sanchez’s dances often showy but less often apt.

Still, Rutigliano made a gruffly endearing La Guardia, Baldwin a lushly sung Thea, and Dilly an appealingly plucky Marie. Shuler Hensley, as a Republican ward boss, feasted, grinning, on the show’s two best songs, while Adam Heller made pungent comedy as the hero’s harried law clerk.

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