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A CurtainUp Review
Torch Song

When I wrote Torch Song, I was villified by the gay community: "He's just trying to make us like heterosexuals. I don't want to ever get married. Who the hell wants children?" Now, look around . . .
— Harvey Fierstein commenting on the Gay community's reaction back in 1981, before the AIDS crisis, and before gay marrieds with children became a new normal.
Torch Song
Mercedes Ruehl & Michael Urie (Photo: Joan Marcus)
After almost half a century a revival of Harvey Fierstein's story about drag queen Arnold Beckoff's quest for a satisfying love and family life risks being viewed as dated, an artifact to be included in any list of the many plays about gay life since the days of Oscar Wilde's imprisonment for "gross indecency." Yet, per Fierstein's quote above the gay community that villified Torch Song for championing a gay man's yearning for a committed relationship and parenthood, in this post-AIDs world of gay men married and with children an increasingly new normal, Arnold's story is in many ways prescient, just as many of the play's elements were forerunners for the Fierstein/Jerry Herman hit musical La Cage Aux Folles

The busy Fierstein has certainly done his bit for promoting tolerance of gay or any choice of life style. In his 2014 play Casa Valentina he sympathetically explored the world of male cross dressers and earlier this year he interrupted his busy playwriting career long enough to act in Martin Sherman's modern gay love story, Gently Down the Stream .

As for mounting the play, I can't think of a director better suited to prove that Fierstein's gift for timelessly funny and touching dialogue and characters still warrant a another look than Moisés Kaufman. After all, Kaufman made his mark as a director with his staging of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project , a documentary about the homophobic killing of Matthew Shepard.

The only Torch Song Trilogy I ever saw was a more condensed version that focused on the final segment produced by the Glines organization at the off-off Broadway Actors Playhouse. It featured Fierstein as Arnold and Matthew Broderick as David and was expanded into a full 4-hour long trilogy for its 3-year run at the Helen Hayes Theater (Now owned by the 2nd Stage at whose 43rd Street venue the current revival is running).

So here it is again, trimmed down by Fierstein to a more manageable two-act, 2 1/2 hour plus intermission format which accounts for the title sans "trilogy. The first question any revival is bound to raise is whether it can make us care about the fraught romantic life of a gay man from a by-gone era without the author to bring his own persona and unique croaky voice to the main role — especially in the opening piece, The International Stud.

Michael Urie, whose previous comic star turns were in Buyer & Cellar and The Govenment Inspector , looks and sounds nothing like Mr. Fierstein. But he is an engaging Arnold, especially good with physical comedy but also knowing how to do plaintive. . Mr. Kaufman has let him go full-camp for the very long initial monologue in which Urie's Arnold — shades of the woman in Dorothy Parker's story "The Telephone" — is desperately waiting for his lover Ed (Ward Horton) to call him, only to discover that Ed's affections are divided between him and a woman. That monologue is basically a gay version of the old radio soap opera Backstage Wife, Fanny Hurst's similarly themed novel of a fraught love affair.

Even though the best act comes last, The International Stud does work well as the first brush stroke for this overall portrait of an incorrigible romantic's struggles with persistent self-hate and insecurity, and insistent self-love — a man who hates his mother and yet wants to be like her.

Also in this revival's favor is that though everything remains firmly planted in the original time frame (1972, 1975 and 1980), Kaufman and his designers have created a classy and distinctly modern production.

What the cuts seem to have shortchanged is the use of the torchy music. Still each part of this 2-act format flows into the next and seems to make sure that everyone gets a fair share of the script's trenchant lines.

Today's audiences are unlikely to find anything all that new or shocking about Urie's perhaps overly flamboyant and mannered drag queen monologue. That includes the simulated sex scene that's part of The International Stud.

When Urie's and Horton's solos and duets fast forward four years for Fugue In A Nursery to an expanded cast. Arnold and his new young lover Alan (Michael Rosen), are visiting Ed and hi s female love Laurel (Roxana Hope Radja) at their country house. Zinn's raised platform now features a giant bed, which serves as an amusing metaphoric playpen for a count/counterpoint interplay of the relationships that have developed. Small wonder that Lauren calls it "downright Noel Coward" and jokingly suggests they use English accents all weekend.

Ed's talk about how if he and Arnold had stayed together they might perhaps adopted a child illustrate my earlier statement that some of what's dated is now actually prescient. On the other hand, given the late 80s AIDS epidemic, Ed's getting sexually involved with Laurel without telling her about his life in the back rooms of gay bars, is now seriously disturbing.

The best thing about revisiting the timeless theme of unconditional, committed love that's the under pinninning of all three acts is Fierstein's rapid-fire dialogue that mixes the snappy one liners enriched with moving revelations. Fortunately, the ensemble is up to landing the zingers and inhabiting their roles convincingly.

Of course, all the characters are a secondary to Arnold's — all that is except Mercedes Ruehl as the insult-at-the-ready widowed mother, the former "Sylvia Sidney of Brighton Beach" now of Miami Beach. Ma's visit to Arnold's New York apartment is the main event of Widows & Children 1st, and very much the meatiest part of this revival.

That creme-de-la-creme final act is set in 1980. Though it's post-Stonewall Gays are still second class citizens. True to its title this segment finds Arnold alone again. Ed is still in his life but their the dynamic about who wants what has changed. The passing years have also brought a program for gay men to foster homeless, parentless gay youngsters. As part of that program Arnold is waiting to finalize his adoption of wise beyond his 15-going-on-16 year-old foster son David ((Jack DiFalco). A situation to which Ma reacts with surprising enthusiasm, and also unsurprising digs at Arnold's life style.

I did find myself wondering why this final act made no reference to the drag queen job. Since Ed is still a teacher as he was in Act 1, I guess we are to assume Arnold is still in the same line of work. Could this really be something Ma wouldn't know and needle him about?

Ruehl's scene stealing appearance owes much to her getting so many of the funny but revelatory zingers. That's not to say she's all one-liners. She makes a potent case for her own failure to empathize with how her son's 5-year relationship with Alan ended. We don't ever love her but we do come to understand the beating heart beneath this woman's tougher than tough love exterior.

Torch Song falls short of the socially relevant depth of Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America that's soon coming back to Broadway after a hit London run. But it's smartly staged and trimmed. Whether two words or three, the title is apt, since a torch song is after all written to remind us of steamy affairs and loves lost before their time.





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PRODUCTION NOTES
Torch Song by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Cast: Michael Urie (Arnold), Jack Difalco (David), Ward Horton (Ed), Roxanna Hope Radja (Laurel), Michael Rosen (Alan), Mercedes Ruehl (Ma)
Sets: David Zinn
Costumes: Clint Ramos
Lighting: David Lander
Sound: FitzPatton
Stage Manager: Ben Friedman
Running time: Approx. 2 1/2 hours plus 1 intermission Second Stage West 43rd Street
From 9/26/17; opening 10/19/17; closing 12/09/17.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 10/17/press preview


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