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Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - November 1, 2018

Torch Song by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Moises Kaufman. Scenic design by David Zinn. Costume design by Clint Ramos. Lighting design by David Lander. Sound design by John Gromada. Hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Make-up design by Joe Dulude II. Cast: Michael Urie, Ward Horton, Roxanna Hope Radja, Michael Hsu Rosen, Jack DiFalco, Mercedes Ruehl.
Theatre: Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Ward Horton, Michael Urie
Photo by Matthew Murphy

It's been a lot of years. When Torch Song Trilogy first burst on the scene in 1981, audiences must have experienced nothing like it before, a blistering gay comedy-drama that didn't whimper — well, much — in the why-does-everybody-hate-us-it's-so-unfair manner of The Boys in the Band, and rang with themes that resonated with audiences of all orientations. And in author-leading man Harvey Fierstein, as Arnold Beckoff, professional drag queen and eternal seeker of love, it boasted a presence as fascinating as it was unique. Critics took note, a successful off-Broadway run blossomed into three years on Broadway, and Fierstein was made. Since then, though, gay life has evolved dramatically, and the theater has never turned its eyes away. So many gay plays with so many themes, such a lot to talk about — how has Torch Song Trilogy, now retitled just Torch Song, held up?

Pretty well, judging from the revival at the Helen Hayes, a Second Stage production last seen last fall — though with a caveat or two. I'd never seen this show before, in any staging or via the 1988 film version, so I can't compare it against the Fierstein original or any other incarnation. What I see is a deft trilogy — it's still three one-acts — that humanizes a protagonist some small-minded audience members from the hinterlands might have resented, and offers vivid opportunities to its six actors. But awkward moments remain.

It was written pre-AIDS, and that's bound to color present-day perceptions of it. But there's, well, a lot of sex. After a brief monologue in Arnold's messy dressing room — David Zinn did the fine settings, including a fading neon "Torch Song" sign, a symbol of the fading showbiz tropes Arnold (Michael Urie) embraces — we're in the International Stud, which is the first act's title, and also was a real Village bar-backroom. There, handsome Ed (Ward Horton), despite a marked ambivalence about what he's doing, meets and picks up Arnold. Ed says he's bi, but he's trying clumsily to live in both worlds, despite his strong family ties and the hazards gayness presents to his teaching job. It's the early Seventies, folks, and if you're gay, you look both ways before entering a bar, and you agonize before coming out to your family.

Anyway, a romance starts, one punctuated by Ed's frequent absences from Arnold and eventual marriage to Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja; the role's underwritten, but she makes a lot out of it). The Ed-Arnold evolution has an interesting push-pull to it, but Ed, as played by Horton, is largely colorless, until he gets a meaty last scene, something at which this playwright excels. For now, Ed and Arnold debate their relationship, inconclusively, and zip, we're into Fugue in a Nursery.

Mercedes Ruehl
Photo by Matthew Murphy

This is Fierstein at his most creative, a metaphorical romp under literal covers (the set is one huge tilted bed) involving Ed, Laurel, Arnold, and his new boyfriend, Alan (Michael Hsu Rosen). Rosen has an outrageous bod, but aside from that, it's hard to see why Alan and Arnold would be a couple; nevertheless, he turns into the great love of Arnold's life, to set us up for the next act. Fugue consists mainly of sexual-politicking dialogues, with couples uncoupling and recoupling, to perhaps a disturbing degree. The segues are surprising and fun — Fierstein really knows how to shape a scene and end it on a button. But Laurel, for a convention-loving wife, is remarkably accepting of and communicative about the menage-a-trois aspects of her marriage. And what business, really, does Ed have seducing Alan, never mind trying to patch things up with Arnold? We keep telling ourselves it's 1975, but to 2018 eyes, this play may just contain too much sleeping around.

The third act, Widows and Children First, takes place in 1980 — the present, when it was written — in what Fierstein's script calls "an almost conventional sitcom set of a living room/kitchen." How Arnold can afford this Village two-bedroom on a drag queen's pay isn't clear, though it's no luxury loft — you'll love Zinn's aqua refrigerator and Bakelite radio. So much has happened: Alan's tragically gone, Ed has left Laurel and is temporarily rooming with Arnold, and Arnold is in the preliminarily stages of adopting David (Jack DiFalco), a gay teen who seems hyperliterate, given his previous miserable upbringing. Arnold, against all odds (and logic), is a fabulous dad, though father and son are almost disturbingly touchy-feely — this may be Moises Kaufman's direction, which emphasizes the tactile throughout.

Widows and Children First must be the act Torch Song fans remember best — it has the strongest writing, highlighted by a knock-down-drag-out between Arnold and his disapproving mother (Mercedes Ruehl), who's visiting from Florida and judging, judging, judging. Now, we all love Mercedes Ruehl, don't we, but her Mrs. Beckoff has a distracting star-turn quality. She's stiff and angular, with frequent glances to the audience, seemingly for approval, and she's so hateful you just want to urge Arnold to slap her and throw her out. She has quite a wardrobe — thank Clint Ramos for the hideous Eighties fashion parade — and she yells a lot. Fierstein navigates expertly between comedy and drama here, but his determination to send us out on a hopeful note creates more than one unlikelihood. Would Ed really have the last-minute change of heart he has, at this moment in time, given the emotional and professional risks it presents? And would this nightmare of a mother shove aside her wretched previous behavior to act motherly?

Michael Urie is a less, er, singular presence than Harvey Fierstein, and that may make his Arnold easier to empathize with. Certainly, he's terrific at physical comedy — a backroom bar sequence, with yet more sex, is a hoot — and he's a pro at navigating the frequent shifts of mood. But Fierstein, with that raspy basso growl, may have made more of an impression, I can't say. This Torch Song clocks in at just under three hours, down from the four-plus of the original, and while I don't know what's missing, it isn't missed. Every character has plenty of opportunity to emote and vent, and the narrative flows smoothly. If you found past Torch Song productions liberating or moving or hilarious or all three, you'll probably feel the same about this one. I enjoyed it, but I still wonder whether Arnold and Ed really belong together. Or whether all that hugging and kissing between Arnold and David is truly kosher.


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