“Torch Song” Burns Brightly at Second Stage

Wednesday, November 8, 2017
With all due respect to brave, brilliant, groundbreaking Harvey Fierstein, I’m so glad his play lost weight. Or rather, minutes. When it opened on Broadway in 1982, Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy ran about four hours. With the author in the role of lovelorn drag queen Arnold Beckoff and Estelle Getty (The Golden Girls) as his acerbic, intolerant mother, I’m sure the three plays just flew by. However, a streamlined version recently opened at Second Stage Theatre. It dropped Trilogy from the title and runs two hours and 40 minutes. Even short an hour and some, this new Torch Song is still a full-course meal of comedy and heartbreak, stuffed with Arnold’s kvetching and zingers and served by a first-rate crew of actors under the steady hand of Moisés Kaufman. Michael Urie (comic perfection in The Government Inspector) plays Arnold, a fact that ought to immediately draw cries of miscasting. “I have never been young and beautiful,” Arnold tells us in his dressing room as he applies mascara and dons a gown and wig for the evening’s act. This is absurd: Urie is utterly youthful and handsome, but he knows how to “ugly up.” Adopting a nasal Brooklyn drawl (inspired by but not aping Fierstein’s croak) and fidgety, uncomfortable-in-his-skin body language, Urie conjures a wisecracking neurotic who alternately clings to and pushes away every guy he’s been with. Arnold’s latest crush is especially complicated: the bisexual, Waspy Ed (Ward Horton), who can’t decide whether he wants to date boys or girls. For his part, Arnold longs for what every hetero takes for granted: a life partner with whom to nest. In the early Reagan years, a homosexual family-values comedy was a radical proposition.
Michael Urie in Torch Song / Photo by Joan Marcus
The piece is divided into three parts. First is “The International Stud,” in which Arnold embarks on his on-again-off-again affair with Ed, despite the latter’s emotional inconstancy and obvious narcissism. Next is “Fugue in a Nursery“—played out on a giant bed—in which Arnold and his young lover, Alan (Michael Rosen), visit Ed and his pro-gay fiancée, Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja), at their country home for a weekend of infidelity. The final section, “Widows and Children First,” is the meatiest and most hard-hitting and set in Arnold’s downtown apartment. It’s 1980 and Arnold is fostering gay teen David (Jack DiFalco), while letting Ed, separated from Laurel, crash on his couch as his fire-breathing mother (fiercely committed Mercedes Ruehl) visits from Florida. Ma has never accepted Arnold’s gayness, and she’s horrified to think he’s corrupting a boy. When the recriminations start flying, don’t expect a tidy resolution.
Ward Horton, Jack DiFalco, Michael Urie, and Mercedes Ruehl / Photo by Joan Marcus
Thirty-five years after Torch Song Trilogy bowed on Broadway, the world is undeniably different. Gay marriage and adoption by same-sex couples are widely accepted norms, and gender has been recognized as fluid and constructed. Progressive laws and tolerance have made it a period piece (not to mention its sitcom-ready punch lines and Borscht Belt humor). But while society is generally more LGBTQ friendly, that doesn’t make coming out to parents or surviving school bullying any easier. So yes, the bell-bottom jeans and cultural references are dated, but Fierstein’s message of love and good parenting will never grow old. Why You Should Go: Urie will break your heart and tickle your funny bone in Fierstein’s groundbreaking gay dramedy. Details: Torch Song Tony Kiser Theater 305 West 43rd Street (between Eighth and Ninth Avenues), Hell’s Kitchen Through Saturday, December 9 Tickets start at $99 Chat with a planner to reserve your tickets before the torch burns out.