“It’s crazy”, says Michael Urie as Arnold, that “after all these years I’m still trying to justify my life.” Arnold means his life as a gay man, and though he is talking specifically to his mother (Mercedes Ruehl), the comment lands with force in Torch Song, the Off-Broadway revival of the 1982 Broadway play that launched Harvey Fierstein’s mainstream career as both playwright and performer.
It would be terrific to report that the issues Fierstein wove into his Tony winning comedy about Arnold Beckoff’s life and loves make the play seem dated 35 years later, after ACT UP and Ellen DeGeneres and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act and Laverne Cox and the Supreme Court’s Marriage Equality ruling and the Stonewall National Monument. But the current political climate threatens the gains in gay rights; the problems of gay bashing and homeless gay youth and parental rejection have not disappeared; and the search for love and acceptance and self-acceptance remains as fresh as a wound.
More production photos at NewYorkTheater.me
What does feel dated, though, is a steady beat of jokes as if set to the metronome of an old-fashioned Broadway comedy. To be fair, much of the snappy dialogue is still funny; a few gags even retain their ability to shock, albeit in a charming way. Indeed, there’s a sly art, almost an artful politics, in the way Fierstein used his disarming humor to make some blunt facts of gay life in the 1970s more palatable to a matinee crowd – most memorably when Arnold has sex in the backroom of a gay bar. But there’s a sheen of artificiality to much of Torch Song – a patina of calculation even in some of the heartfelt confrontations — that wasn’t so noticeable before Angels in America; The Normal Heart; Love! Valour! Compassion!; Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde’ and Laramie Project – these last two ironically by Moises Kaufman, who is directing Torch Song. It’s not just the theater that has changed. So has television, not only bringing us such uncompromising LGBT shows as “Queer as Folk”, “Looking” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, but also casually including gay content and regular gay characters in universally popular series as divergent as “Modern Family” and “Game of Thrones”.
Luckily, the Second Stage Theater production of Torch Song features a six-member cast, led by Michael Urie, whose performances are good enough, with one exception, largely to minimize any damage caused by the moments of vintage shtick. Still, Torch Song can probably best be appreciated, even celebrated, as a piece of living gay history.
It helps to remember the play’s roots. The Brooklyn-born Fierstein started writing his semi-autobiographical Torch Song Trilogy in his early 20s, after several years performing as a teenage drag queen and then an Off-Off Broadway actor and playwright in the East Village. They were initially three separate plays, debuting one at a time at LaMama from 1977 to 1979.
At a time when mainstream gay playwrights were indirect or discreet, it was considered “daring” (in the words of one critic at the time) to bring to Off-Broadway and then Broadway Fierstein’s frank four-hour drama centered on a character who was (in the then-respectable now-cringe worthy lingo of the era) an “avowed homosexual.” Theatergoers were ready for it; it was a hit, running for three years. Fierstein has been a fixture on Broadway ever since – book writer for La Cage aux Folles, Newsies and Kinky Boots; star of Hairspray and Fiddler on the Roof.
Fierstein has said Torch Song is an “adaptation” of Torch Song Trilogy – most noticeably, it’s been trimmed to about two and a half hours (not counting the 15 minute intermission.) Missing from the new version, to my surprise and dismay, is the one Arnold line most often quoted from the original – that he wants what everybody wants, an apartment he can afford, a job he doesn’t hate too much, and somebody to share it all with.
But the homey sentiment not only remains, it’s presented in neon signs – literally. In an otherwise modest design, the words “Torch Song” hover above the stage in bright red neon, and then each of the three plays/chapters gets its own neon sign.
The first, “International Stud”, taking place in 1971, is named after an infamous gay bar of the period. We first meet Arnold preparing for a drag show, putting on his makeup and eventually his dress. He tells us his drag name is Virginia Ham. He shares his wisdom about gay dating– such as avoiding any man who tells you how wonderful his therapist is. “Not that I got anything against analysis. I don’t. I think it’s a great way to keep from boring your friends. But what’s good for the bored is death for the bed, if you get my drift.”
In the next scene, Arnold meets Ed (Ward Horton), and falls for him, although Ed seems to violate all the rules of romance that Arnold has just told us about. He is a pleasant and pleasant-looking schoolteacher, but he is also closeted and ambivalent and starts to date a woman. Complications ensue.
In “Fugue in a Nursery”, which takes place in 1975, Ed has married Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja) and the couple has invited Arnold and his new boyfriend Alan (Michael Rosen) to their country home. Much of this chapter is in the style of a 1960s sex farce, albeit sweeter, with the four sharing a giant bed on stage, but popping up in separate vignettes.
The final chapter takes place in 1980. Much has happened, not all of it good, as reflected in the title, “Widows and Children First”. Arnold is still friends with Ed, who is estranged from his wife, and there is a new character in their lives, David – Arnold’s 15-year-old foster son – who has put on a three piece suit on this particular day because both the social worker and Arnold’s mother from Florida are due for a visit.
David belongs to the species of precocious smart-mouthed adolescent whose habitat seems largely restricted to situation comedies, but he is also a gay street kid “taken away from his parents.” Matthew Broderick originated the role Off-Broadway in his New York stage debut, with first Fisher Stevens and eventually Jon Cryer, among others, portraying David on Broadway. In the new production, the role falls to Jack DiFalco, who was magnificent in the recent Broadway revival of Marvin’s Room and in the Off-Broadway dystopian horror show Mercury Fur. But he isn’t magnificent this time, and it isn’t clear whether he simply doesn’t handle comedy well, or the humor of his character hasn’t aged well. I suspect both. Here is an exchange in which David interrupts an argument between Ed and Arnold over the coming visit of Arnold’s mother:
ED: I think I make a convincing homosexual.
DAVID: You can make this convincing homosexual.
ARNOLD: David! And if she thought you were gay she’d never believe you slept on the couch.
ED: I could show her the scars.
ARNOLD: I could show you the door.
DAVID: I could show you a good time.
ARNOLD and ED: David!
DAVID Well, I’d love to sit around and chit-chat with you grown-up types, but we straight C students pride ourselves on our punctuality.
Given such lapses into dialogue of the bada-bada-bing variety, one is grateful for the presence of Michael Urie. Urie entered into pop culture consciousness as the catty fashion editor’s assistant Marc St. James in the TV series “Ugly Betty” a decade ago, but the Juilliard graduate has proven with each successive New York stage role, from How to Succeed in Business, to Show for Days to The Government Inspector, that he was born for theater. He has great charm, comic timing, and physical grace, and he also can handle a serious scene. He has been especially adept at gay-themed theater — The Temperamentals, Homos or Everyone in America, and Buyer and Cellar, the play by Jonathan Tolin in which Urie portrayed every part, including that of Barbra Streisand – but not, if you can believe it, in a campy way.
In Torch Song, Urie’s Brooklyn accent may fade in and out, but it’s most pronounced when it counts – in confrontation with Arnold’s mother, who sees his sexual orientation as a sickness.
“You have not spoken a sentence since I got here with out the word Gay in it,” complains Mercedes Ruehl (priceless as usual) as Ma. “You want me to change?” she says later. “I’m too old. I can’t. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.”
But, whatever else has or hasn’t happened in the 35 years since Fierstein’s play made him a star, millions of mothers could, and did.
Torch Song is on stage at Second Stage’s at the Tony Kiser Theater (305 West 43rd Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, New York, N.Y. 10036) through December 3. Tickets and details
Torch Song, written by Harvey Fierstein, directed by Moises Kaufman. Costume design by Clint Ramos, set design by David Zinn, sound design by Fitz Patton, lighting design by David Lander. Featuring Jack Difalco as David, Ward Horton as Ed, Roxanna Hope Radja as Laurel, Michael Rosen as Alan, Mercedes Ruehl as Ma and Michael Urie as Arnold Beckoff. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.