When Torch Song opened Off-Broadway a year ago, I noted that the issues affecting gay people that it explored remained unfortunately relevant 35 years after the play had debuted on Broadway, but that Harvey Fierstein’s landmark play felt like an old-fashioned comedy, in light of the diverse and sophisticated array of gay plays that had been produced in the intervening years. Now, a year later, Second Stage has transferred its production, cast intact and with few noticeable changes, from its Off-Broadway theater to its new Broadway house, the Helen Hayes Theater, a block away.
In the year in-between, Broadway audiences were treated to a revival of Tony Kushner’s timely, ambitious, and altogether remarkable Angels in America — a far more substantive and challenging play than Torch Song. Also in that year, and more tellingly, The Boys in the Band, another landmark gay play that is an older and even more dated period piece than Torch Song, received its first Broadway production. And the contrast of that production with Torch Song is eye-opening: An all-gay cast of A-list actors created an inviting sense of camaraderie, but, thanks in part to the alchemy of out gay director Joe Mantello, they did something more than that: By their very participation in the production, they were saying “Here’s how far we’ve come.” They weren’t just honoring gay history; they were making history.
The 1982 Broadway production of Torch Song Trilogy, starring Harvey Fierstein as Arnold Beckoff, a sometime drag queen and gay Jewish romantic searching for love and acceptance, could be credited with having made history. But no such claim would be credible for the revival, renamed Torch Song, starring Michael Urie as Arnold and Mercedes Ruehl as his mother. It’s just an entertainment now, unthreatening and largely unchallenging, directed competently but with no stunning vision by Moises Kaufman (who has had his share of stunning theater pieces, many on gay themes, such as Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde’ and The Laramie Project.)
Click on any photograph by Matthew Murphy to see it enlarged.
But if Torch Song suffers in comparison to the spate of first-rate gay plays over the last few decades, and the excellent revivals over the past year, there’s no denying how witty and well-meaning it is. Many in the barrage of one-liners are still quite funny, and the strong performances of Urie and Ruehl in particular help make more palatable the artificial feel to many of the scenes.
There is also still a sense of inventiveness in the structure and varied styles of the play, which began as three separate plays, presented one by one Off-Off Broadway at La MaMa ETC between 1977 and 1979. They retain their titles, each introduced by a neon sign (The signs are now larger than they were Off-Broadway.)
The first, “International Stud,” set 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 the very blond hunk 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.
(It’s worth noting that after “The International Stud,” Arnold – or at least the play – drops the drag. It strikes me as an example of the playwright’s careful calculations, as if he has calibrated the precise doses of “gay” to administer to a mainstream audience so as to titillate without causing extreme discomfort.)
In “Fugue in a Nursery”, set in 1974, Ed has married Laurel (a cheerful and game Roxanna Hope Radja) and the couple has invited Arnold and his new boyfriend Alan (the adorable Michael Hsu 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”. Alan has died. (There is no mention of AIDS in this play; Alan’s death was due to a gay bashing.) Ed is estranged from his wife, and is staying with Arnold, with whom he has remained friends. There is a new character in their lives, David, Arnold’s 15-year-old gay foster son (in an often cringe-worthy performance by Jack DiFalco.) Arnold’s mother visits from Florida, and in their tense interaction are the seeds of a deeper play. They baldly stake their contrary positions. She thinks he has a sickness, and that he’s crazy for adopting David. He says: “You want to know what’s crazy? After all these years I’m still trying to justify my life.”
Urie’s acting differs little in these scenes than in those that are more shtick-filled, but his performance in Torch Song may be a lesson in microcosm of how the play as a whole can still manage to be effective. Urie is supremely accomplished at physical comedy, demonstrated to brilliant effect when he starred in The Government Inspector. There are no outright pratfalls in Torch Song as there were in Inspector, but each of Urie’s outsized gestures and easily readable facial expressions seems meticulously choreographed; one can imagine his practicing in front of a mirror, and writing some self-devised code for each gesture in his script, that’s how calculated they feel. Yet it’s those very gestures that help make us laugh; those expressions help make us feel moved. They work.
Torch Song is on stage at the Helen Hayes Theater ( 240 W 44th Street, between 7th and 8th Aves, New York, NY 10036) through February 24, 2019
Tickets and details