Entertainment » Theatre

Torch Song

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Monday Oct 23, 2017
Michael Urie
Michael Urie  

Everything old is new again, when 2nd Stage's Tony Kiser Theater stages Harvey Fierstein's epic "Torch Song" (the "Trilogy" has been dropped, as the first two acts are wisely compressed into one). This streamlined production keeps the poignant, powerful story intact, while making it a bit friendlier and forgiving for a modern stage audience.

Michael Urie excels as Arnold, a wisecracking New York Jewish drag queen who is painfully self-aware. In fact, his first lines of the first act, "The International Stud," are, "I think my biggest problem is being young and beautiful. It's my biggest problem because I have never been young and beautiful."

Because Fierstein was a veritable Oscar Wilde of bon mots with this play, his Arnold quips lines like, "There are easier things in this life than being a drag queen, but I ain't got no choice. Try as I may, I just can't walk in flats."

And, in a sometimes grotesque but overall endearing New York accent, Urie nails the character in a powerhouse performance that is the talk of the town.

He's a self-deprecating queen with a heart of gold, and it isn't too long before he revises his glib comment that there "ain't no toads when the lights go down" and agrees to go home with Ed (Ward Horton), a handsome, blonde, Brooklyn schoolteacher who promises he is "bisexual" -- a designation Arnold never quite believes.

This gets complicated when, after two months of dating, Ed stops calling. After six days waiting by the phone, Arnold calls to find Ed's been seeing someone else: Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja).

Roxanna Hope Radja, Ward Horton, Michael Urie, Michael Rosen  (Source:Jan Marcus)

Arnold's certain the timing of this "sudden burst of heterosexuality" has to do with the seasonal arrival of Ed's parents, especially when he learns Ed hasn't told Laurel about his bisexuality at all.

Five months later, when Ed's parents return to Florida, he touches base with Arnold. Laurel knows about Ed's bisexuality, but things are hardly better. Ed admits he fantasizes about Arnold during sex. Even scarier, he's tried to kill himself. Arnold takes him home, but wonders, "What if he's treating me just the way I want him to? What if it's me using him to give me that tragic torch singer status I admire so in others?"

By the summer of 1975 (the original Act Two "Fugue in a Nursery,") Ed's back with Laurel, and Arnold and his super-sexy young lover Alan (Michael Rosen) are visiting their country home. The action is delivered on one big, stage-sized bed, with the characters taking turns presenting the action. It's a clever bit of staging, and keeps the action lightning-fast.

Unfortunately for Arnold and Laurel, it also leads to Ed and Alan hooking up, which undermines both relationships. But as Arnold quips, "If two wrongs don't make a right, maybe four do."

The simple, unfussy staging by David Zinn is perfectly suited to the action. The first set features only three movable platforms Urie and others cross, with simple props like a beer bottle or a dressing table establishing locale. In Act Two, they've transformed the stage into Arnold's circa-1980s apartment, complete with sleeper sofa, teal refrigerator, and orange Bakelite radio. Special kudos to David Lander's lighting design, especially the outline of the acts in neon, above the stage.

Mercedes Ruehl, Michael Urie  (Source:Joan Marcus)

In this stage production, the third act "Widows and Children First" is presented as Act Two, and Arnold's got a gay teenage son, David (Jack DiFalco). Ed's crashing on the sofa bed after getting the boot from Laurel.

Everyone's abuzz because Arnold's Ma (Mercedes Ruehl) is about to arrive. She doesn't know about David, and Arnold warns him, "Don't Ma me. And don't call me Ma in front of my mother." But it's impossible; Arnold mothers just like his mother -- except without the piercing litany of homophobic comments.

When David sneaks back home, the cat's out of the bag. Ma's okay with it when she thinks it's temporary, but when she learns that it's for keeps, she fires out, "You want to know why you didn't tell me? ...Because you knew it was wrong." She bristles when Arnold compares her relationship with Alan to her marriage of 35 years, saying it "insult[s] me and spit[s] on your father's grave."

"You think that's what we brought you into the world for? Believe me, if I'd known I wouldn't have bothered," says Ma.

With its depictions of gay bashing, motherly condemnation and the grotty underbelly of the drag world, "Torch Song Trilogy" was not always an easy movie to watch. Wisely, Fierstein and director Moises Kaufman have injected more humor into the proceedings (as exhibited in Arnold's hilarious back-room schtuping). But decades after parental disapproval of a child's 'gay lifestyle' were deemed inappropriate, Ma's harsh words are still hard to hear.

Despite the period-appropriate homophobia, "Torch Song" emerges as a culturally-relevant play even for our time. The subject matter can be heavy, but the director's light touch transforms it into a poignant and humorous view of a somewhat uncomplicated, pre-AIDS gay world. In the end, both the audience and Ma can see that what Arnold most desires is a traditional family, even if it's done in a non-traditional way.

"Torch Song" runs through December 9 at Second Stage Theater Tony Kiser Theater, 305 W. 43rd Street at 8th Avenue. For information or tickets, call 212-246-4422 or visit www.2st.com/shows/torch-song?

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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