San Francisco's Torch Song
The Pride Company is finishing its successful season with a revival of Harvey Fierstein's Tony Award winning play Torch Song Trilogy. This is a top- drawer production with marvelous acting on the part of Paul Tena as Arnold.
Torch Song began life as a one act play called, International Stud, which was the name of an infamous gay bar in New York. Written by Harvey Fierstein, it first opened Off-Off Broadway on Feb 2nd, 1978 at La Mama ETC with Harvey playing the lead. It ran until Feb 17, 1978. This was the first part of a trilogy that later became Torch Song Trilogy. At the time of its opening at La Mama ETC, The Village Voice called it “the best gay play we have seen”. It made its Off-Broadway opening on May 22, 1978 at the Players Theatre.
On Jan 15, 1982, the play was finally completed in its present form and was now called Torch Song Trilogy. It opened at the Actor's Playhouse where it ran 117 performances. Once again Harvey took the role of Arthur and a young Matthew Broderick made his Broadway debut as the adopted son. Variety said of Matthew's performance “the youngster has a distinctive presence that augurs a bright future”. The production won the Tony Award for Best Play and Harvey walked away with a Tony for best actor in a production.
On June 10, 1982 it transferred to the Little Theatre that is the present Helen Hayes Theatre, and ran for 1,222 performances. During the run of the play, some gays were irked by play for what they felt was its support of family values but they were in the minority.
I saw the play at the Little Theatre with Harvey and Matthew in the roles. I was not affronted by the family values and thought it was the best gay play written at the time; far superior to Boys In the Band. Later I saw the play in London where Antony Sher took over the role of Arnold. He gave an outstanding performance. I also saw the touring company when it played here '83 or '84. but for the life of me I can't remember who played Arnold.
There was the film with Harvey repeating his role and Matthew now taking the role of his young lover. The film was cut to 2 hours and opened up the play to various outside scenes including the death of the young lover. However, one of the great scenes in the film was the discussion of Arnold's lifestyle with his mother played wonderfully by Ann Bancroft.
I was happy to see that the Pride Company had decided to revive the play for its final production of the season. The play chronicles Arnold Bechoff's search for love, respect and tradition in a world that seems not especially made for him. Arnold is a drag queen who performs in various clubs in Manhattan. He is proud of his art as he looks at the audience from his dressing room table in the first act. He says the tragedy of his life is that he was never young and beautiful. He says, “Yes, I was young and, Yes, I was beautiful but never together”. Arnold has some some cutting one-liners during this soliloquy.
The play traces Arnold's hilarious steps toward domestic bliss with a reluctant bisexual school teacher, to his first truly promising love affair with a young fashion model. However his greatest challenge is his complicated relationship with his mother which come to a head at the end of the play. Arnold is a resilient type. His wit and humor helps him get through his life.
This production had a lot of things going for it, especially Paul Tena Playing the leading role. Mr. Tena is known in the gay theater here in San Francisco, as a good, campy actor. He has graced many camp shows like Barebacking, Medea- The Musical and Combat. However, in this production he shows us his serious side, particularly in the third act. He shows us the many sides of Arnold and he does it successfully.
One of the most professional performances in this production is by Martha Stookey, as Arnold's mother. She is a veteran stage and film actress and is artistic director of the Cathedral Players. She is incredible as the Mother and she livens the third act which went on a little too long.
Bill Allen played the bisexual Ed. He was proper for the job however, I did not like his entrance into the play. He plays a guy on the prowl in a gay bar and he acts like a fool. I thought, I hope he is not going to play it this way through out the production. However, when he calmed down in the second scene, he proved a very believable actor. Kyle Kannenberg plays the young model and he is adequate. However he did try to be too cute to portray a 18 year old model. He played it too broad and with too many gestures that were unnecessary. Melissa Kolasks had a nice voice singing the torch songs in the first act and then becoming Ed's wife in the second act. She was bright and saucy in her role. The cast was rounded out by a young actor named Simon Trumble who is still in middle school. He played the adopted son, the role that Matthew originated in New York. At first, I thought he was playing it too broad for a 15 year old but about 5 minutes into the role, he settled down. For his age, he is an accomplished actor. If he tones down his future performances he will be very good.
The play is at the New Conservatory Theatre and it will run until July 15, with tickets ranging from $13 to $22.
The Pride Company has a great line up for its 00-01 season with a world premier, three West Coast premiers, a Bay Area premier and a revival of Caryl Churchill's comedy Cloud 9. Included in the line up is, Visiting Mr Green by Jeff Baron, Corpus Christi by Terrence McNalley, Snakebit by David Marshall Grant, Most Fabulous Story Ever Told by Paul Rudnick, The Velocity of Gary by James Still, starring Danny Pintauro who had an eight year run on ABC's Who's the Boss, Debunking Love by Prince Gomolvilas and Martin Yesterday by Brad Fraser.