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Torch Song

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 19, 2017

Ward Horton, Jack DiFalco, Michael Urie,
and Mercedes Ruehl
Photo by Joan Marcus

Zingy jokes, bits of shtick, and sight gags fly fast and furious during Torch Song, a trimmed-down revival of Harvey Fierstein's 1983 Tony Award-winning Torch Song Trilogy, which opened tonight in an entertaining but only occasionally stirring production at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater.

With all due concession to the three decades that have passed since that initial Broadway run, Torch Song does not, and never did, take a lot of risks in telling the story of its protagonist Arnold (a tireless and immensely likeable Michael Urie), a gay man who longs for a permanent relationship and family. The play, and the way it is being performed under Mois├ęs Kaufman's light-handed direction, is emblematic of Fierstein's propensity for providing a ton of sugar to draw in audiences to his plea for acceptance on behalf of his gay characters. It's significant that Arnold confronts his mother late in the play with these words: "There is nothing I need from anyone except for love and respect." Fierstein has been consistent with that message through his entire career, and there is no denying his approach to winning over a potentially reticent audience has served him well in such popular fare as La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots.

But the cascade of one-liners that pour off the stage comes at the sacrifice of character development. It is not until Act II and the appearance of Arnold's mother (a richly-layered portrayal by Mercedes Ruehl) that the play comes into its own and the voices of this complicated pair finally move us away from caricatures to fully realized characters.

Up until then, we've been treated to scenes depicting the ups and downs of Arnold's love life, with a particular focus on Ed (Ward Horton), whom he meets at a gay sex club. Ed, who considers himself to be bisexual, is a commitment-phobe. He claims to love his wife Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja), but he keeps going back and forth between her and Arnold. And he has no qualms about having a sexual encounter with Arnold's new boyfriend Alan (Michael Rosen) in the barn of Ed's country home, while Laurel and Arnold are in the house doing the dishes.

Act II, which takes place in 1980, some six years after the opening scenes, not only brings in Arnold's conflicted mother, who is struggling mightily against everything she believes in to accept her son's "lifestyle," but also introduces another character. The newcomer is David (Jack DiFalco), a gay teenaged boy whom Arnold is trying to adopt following a temporarily court-arranged guardianship. As played by Mr. DiFalco, David is a delightful young man, loving, down-to-earth, and wise beyond his years. He is someone anybody would want as a son; if he has a chip on his shoulder about his past, you'd never know it from his behavior. Unfortunately, this makes him, along with Ed, Laurel, and Alan, a two-dimensional addition to Arnold's story. Only in the difficult, painful, and hurtful conversations between Arnold and his mother does the production truly soar. Fierstein, Kaufman, Urie, and Ruehl all come into their own here. The writing, the direction, and the performances are achingly honest, and while we naturally favor Arnold's stance, Ruehl allows us to see things through his mother's eyes. She may say some pretty hateful things (as does her son), but she is no monster, and one can envision that they will eventually find common ground, most likely through the boy who is soon to be her grandson.

All told, my feelings toward Torch Song are mixed. This revival, for which Fierstein did the editing, was an opportunity to deepen and darken the characterizations. Certainly, the scenes between Urie and Ruehl succeed because they tear down the protective walls of punch lines that surround much of the prior action. And it's hard not to fall in love with the teenaged David and see in him the kind of confident, comfortable-in-his-own-skin gay man who will emerge in the decades that will follow. Yet that payoff comes at the price of watching cardboard figures doing comic bits for a very long time. The laugh lines are written into the script, of course, but they are outsized here, and the overall production is the worse for its failure to take more risks by downplaying the jokes and making the characters more believable from the outset.

Torch Song
Through December 3
Tony Kiser Theater at Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
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