NEW YORK (AP) — In the opening of Martin Moran's new solo play, "All the Rage," an introspective but lively memoir, the performer tells the story of a bitter family argument and how he attempted to manage his emotions by inwardly reciting his "latest mantra," an ancient Sanskrit proverb.
"The road to freedom is lit by compassion."
Martin brings the saying to mind after flying hundreds of miles to attend his father's funeral, only to be greeted rudely by his prickly, suspicious stepmother.
"It is a phrase to be repeated," the soft-spoken but caustic New Yorker advises the audience with coy reverence, "... until convinced."
Moran uses the ensuing clash and its unexpected result as a springboard into a series of isolated but similarly tense vignettes in this meditative comedy, which opened Wednesday at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.
Endearingly humble, clever and funny, he takes us on his sometimes desperate mission to acquire "life clues" and achieve Zen moments, despite the strains of past demons and the apparent hopelessness of his everyday life as a musical theater performer in an unforgiving city and a world that seems to be coming apart at the seams.
The journey includes a series of enlightening, if not quite life-affirming, encounters that range from anger-inducing to humbling and take place in variously far-flung locations — a busy intersection in midtown Manhattan, a Chinese buffet at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, a secluded campsite in the Rocky Mountains, a sightseeing excursion in South Africa.
Moran covers a lot ground, thanks to his deft ability to hopscotch gracefully between seemingly unconnected stories and disparate themes, although the script could use some honing with some of the sudden leaps in narrative and locale.
Part of a flawed solution to the geographic scatter of the story is built into a simple, uninspired set. A pair of rolling bulletin boards display maps — one of Africa and the other of the New York City subway system. A table sits in the center of the stage with nothing but a desk lamp and a globe, which Moran occasionally spins and points to.
He also uses an overhead projector to display photos on a pull-down screen. The props conspire to produce all the ambiance of an elementary school classroom, an unfortunate contrast to the vibrant and real-world edge of Moran's storytelling.
Any problems with awkward scene transitions or the aseptic set are ultimately overcome by fresh humor and steady pacing under the direction of Seth Barrish, who directed Moran's previous play "The Tricky Part," another autobiographical solo piece about his experience as a young victim of sexual abuse and his eventual path to forgiveness. (Barrish's successes in directing solo plays also includes Mike Birbiglia's acclaimed comedies "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend" and "Sleepwalk With Me.")
"Rage" is something of a sequel to Moran's first play, which garnered a 2004 Obie Award, although he assures the audience at the outset, "We're not going down that path tonight," referring to the ordeal of being molested from ages 12 to 15 by a camp counselor.
It's true, Moran mostly stays away from the subject of his abuse, but does discuss how writing and performing "The Tricky Part" served as a personal catharsis. He also explores similar subjects, like dealing with pain, reconciling anger and allowing empathy.
While dancing and singing onstage in a Broadway musical, Martin has an epiphany and resolves to make a difference, however small. The resolution leads him on comical crusade in an unfamiliar world, but after initial failure, he volunteers as a translator for French-speaking African refugees seeking asylum in the U.S.
It is in this capacity that he meets Siba, a sensitive, eloquent torture survivor who was separated from his family by war. Martin is tasked with translating the details of Siba's torture to a psychiatrist in a sobering session that ends when the refugee breaks down in tears after talking about his desire to reunite with his wife and son, who are in hiding.
Doing his best to console him, the translator whisks the crying man out of the office, first to the men's room and eventually down to the sidewalk, but Siba's tears persist.
"If I don't stop crying," the man says, "I will go blind."
"Tears are OK, I think," Martin tells him, wishing he knew what to say. "But what do I know?"