REVIEW: After 35 years, “Torch Song” revival is well worth the wait

REVIEW: After 35 years, “Torch Song” revival is well worth the wait

One summer in the late 1990s, I stumbled across a late-night marathon of gay movies on Bravo.  That was before the network made the jump to low-rent reality programming and still harbored an outsider focus on performing arts, drama, and independent film.  As a closeted-tween, happening upon that marathon coupled the excitement of finding King Tut’s Tomb with the revelation of peering through the looking glass to discover a world in which people like me existed. 

I had seen the Hollywood glitzed “The Birdcage” and “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar”, but the game changer was the 1988 film adaptation of Harvey Fierstein’s masterpiece, landmark play, the intimate “Torch Song Trilogy”.  My young, gay eyes were transfixed, and there was no turning back.  I later had the chance to see an excellent production at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre in 2013, starring a then-unknown Brandon Uranowitz, and kept wondering when the play would come back to New York.

The “trilogy” began as a single one-act play, “The International Stud”, written by and starring a 23-year old Harvey Fierstein in the basement of the East Village’s La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in 1978.  By the time his second installment, “Fugue in a Nursey”, followed in the winter of 1979, it was part of a stated trilogy.  “Widows and Children First!” premiered that fall.  Packaged together at nearly four hours run time, “Torch Song Trilogy” debuted Off-Broadway in 1981, and transferred to Broadway in June 1982, later winning Mr. Fierstein two 1983 Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actor in a Play.

35 years later, “Torch Song” is back on the New York stage—title and text abridged by Mr. Fierstein.  I am tempted to ask “what took so long?”, but I really don’t mind because the stunning production that opened at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theater on Thursday night was well worth the wait.

If, for some reason, you missed that fateful film marathon on Bravo in the 1990s, or have otherwise never encountered this important work in the pantheon of gay history, “Torch Song” follows the story of neurotic and forlorn drag performer Arnold Beckoff—stage name: Virginia Ham—over the course of several years as he searches for love, family, and acceptance in 1970s New York.

Michael Urie (“Buyer & Cellar”, “Ugly Betty”) has the unenviable task of slipping into the heels first worn by Mr. Fierstein more than 35 years ago when he lived the experience of his character Arnold while working as a “female impersonator” on the downtown scene.  Luckily, in Mr. Urie, this production under the steady hand of director Moisés Kaufman (“The Laramie Project”), has found an actor who can match the authenticity of Fierstein’s performance with a virtuosic talent that is a privilege to observe in motion.

As he would do with impressive economy years later in “La Cage aux Folles” and decades later in “Kinky Boots”, Mr. Fierstein created in Arnold a fully realized person who just so happens to be a drag queen.  From the moment Mr. Urie begins the opening soliloquy—one of the best ever written—speaking to the audience from the dingy backstage dressing room of Virginia Ham, the actor we know gets lost in a person we love, a feat only the greatest can achieve. 

Arnold is quick minded, sharp witted, foolish, wise, sweet, sad, buoyant, and lonely.  The play follows his years-long, on-again off-again relationship with the sexually confused, All-American, chiseled Ed (Ward Horton), and introduces Ed’s charming but clueless wife, Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja), Arnold’s twinky young thing, Alan (Michael Rosen), a gay foster-kid, David (Jack DiFalco), and, of course, Arnold’s overbearing, unapproving mother, simply named Mrs. Beckoff (Mercedes Ruehl). 

Shadows of Mr. Urie’s Barbra Streisand from “Buyer & Cellar” pop out at times, as does the unmistakable croak of Mr. Fierstein’s iconic voice, both literally in Mr. Urie’s delivery but also through the text’s composition and reliance on Fierstein’s patented patois.  Mr. Urie never imitates—this Arnold is his—but it is impossible to play the role of Arnold without echoing his creator.  

As Mrs. Beckoff, Mercedes Ruehl, an Oscar-winner for “The Fisher King”, is a radiant force of nature, coiled temper, old-world class, and Jewish mother.  The rest of the cast shines in their respective moments, with weaker, more one-dimensional turns from Mr. DiFalco and Mr. Rosen.  But “Torch Song” is and always has been a torch song for its leading lady, er man, Arnold.

In case I have buried the lead, it is important to know that the play is both tenderly moving but also absolutely hilarious, showcasing Mr. Fierstein’s gift for comedy.  I laughed from start to finish, and even did that annoying, gratuitous clapping thing when a joke is so good, and so well-delivered, that it warrants some applause in addition to a guffaw.  

What is clear, and sometimes clunky, are the play’s roots as three separate plays developed at an experimental off-off-Broadway theatre, each with their own style and tone, despite sharing characters and plot lines.  The three acts of the “trilogy” are presented in two, with an intermission between “Fugue in a Nursery” and “Widows and Children First!”.  Nearly one hour of dialogue has been cut from the original text.  

Watching these acts on stage, the audience maps the evolution of Mr. Fierstein’s writing as he experiments with form and examines character, aided by set designer David Zinn’s visual cues.  As Arnold’s life comes into focus, so does the physical environment. 

The first act is delivered mostly in monologue or one-sided conversations amid the sultry scene of early disco-era neon haze.  The second is the most expressionistic, taking place in one giant bed over the course of a bucolic weekend in the country.  The final act is the most conventional, a sitcom-like dramedy in Arnold’s pastel colored, rabbit-stenciled living room—the most realistic setting in the play—which practically calls for a laugh track and commercial break music.  

Despite the libertine mores of gay liberation that were the zeitgeist in the 1970s, Arnold spurns backroom bars (excepting for one hilariously mimed sex scene in a dark room that shows off Mr. Urie’s impeccable physical comedy) preferring instead monogamous romance, and ultimately most desiring the love and life his parents enjoyed—marriage, children, toaster, and all. 

In 1982, Mr. Fierstein faced criticism from the gay community for, as was charged, deifying the so-called norms of heterosexuality.  In 2017, debates still rage within the gay community about this very question.  And that, in part, is what makes “Torch Song” so primed for this moment.

The play itself emerged from a thin slice of time post-liberation and pre-AIDS when there was space for a fulsome conversation about the destiny of gay identity.  Today, with the promise of pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) potentially heralding the end of HIV/AIDS for those who can access and use it, and a remarkable bout of cultural, social, and political progress for the LGBTQ community, the big questions posed by this play are worth debating again. 

Who and how we define family, gender, sexuality, and identity become even more relevant as the LGBTQ community increasingly becomes part of the seen fabric of American life.  “Torch Song” offers one view, of which there are many, and importantly remains a play that is accessible for everyone to enjoy.  That is the gift of so much of Mr. Fierstein’s writing over the years, and it is refreshing to encounter, especially in a political climate where stridency and purity on both the right and left are often valued more than compassion, empathy, and charity.

Not every great show belongs on a Broadway stage, but I wouldn’t be surprised if “Torch Song” makes the leap.  In a bit of historical happenstance, Second Stage Theater purchased, renovated, and will re-christen the Helen Hayes Theatre this winter as their new, permanent home on Broadway.  The Hayes was, of course, the Broadway home of “Torch Song Trilogy” for 1,222 performances in the 1980s.  Perhaps it might be again.

Bottom Line: after a 35-year absence in New York, Second Stage Theater’s revival of Harvey Fierstein’s landmark gay play “Torch Song” is well worth the wait; this hilarious and touching production is anchored by the virtuosic Michael Urie in a star turn you won’t want to miss.  Get tickets now . . . have you gotten them yet?  You won’t regret it.

Torch Song
Second Stage Theater
at the Tony Kiser Theater
305 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes (including one intermission)
Opening Night: October 19, 2017
Final Performance: December 9, 2017

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