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New York City Theater

"Torch Song"
Helen Hayes Theater

Sometimes labels just don’t work. To call the 1981 “Torch Song Trilogy” a tragedy, a comedy, a memoir would be doing Harvey Fierstein’s work a disservice. Fact is, it’s all of those at once, and more, as it switches on a dime from comedy to pathos, hilarity to sadness. This remembrance of lives past, in an excellent Broadway revival now titled “Torch Song” and whittled down from four hours to three, is as warm and fuzzy, endearing and merry as the pair of bunny slippers worn in the show.

The new title does more than give the Tony Award-winning play a fresh moniker; it’s tighter as it progresses from the immaturity of unattached, unfeeling sex through a taste for marriage, then reconciliation and the hope of creating a family. In that way, especially, it’s not a “gay” play but one that even conservatives would approve of in its striving for a “normalcy” compatible with society’s.

Although its three parts were written over a period of years, they feel more prescient than dated. Not only same-sex marriage but adoptions, even election victories of out candidates are not outlandish. (A Native American lesbian was just elected to Congress from, of all places, Kansas, while Colorado elected the nation’s first gay governor.)

Writing out of his own experiences, Fierstein injects a heavy dose of self-pity, an unmistakable woe-is-me-ness, balanced by wicked humor. The protagonist, Arnold Beckoff, relies on jokes and self-deprecation to cover up romantic disappointments and feelings of being unwanted, even by parents. Before venturing into a sex-filled backroom, for example, he asks a friend, “What if nobody back there wants me?”

It’s a question that probably would not occur to the attractive, charming, energetic Michael Urie. That his Arnold would have trouble connecting is difficult to accept. Luckily, “Torch Song” paints on a large canvas. Its journey towards wisdom, self-acceptance and claiming a rightful place in the wide world is universal.

Part One, “International Stud,” introduces Arnold as an entertainer whose encounter with backroom, anonymous sex is hysterical. It’s in the bar’s front room that he meets the bisexual Ed, an all-American Ken doll and, perhaps, the love of Arnold’s life.

In the second part, the interwoven “Fugue in a Nursery,” both Ed and Arnold have different partners: Ed has Laurel, Arnold has Alan. Playing footsie with each other in a bed the size of Oregon, they alternately attract and repel.

In the third scene, “Widows and Children First,” in sails Ma who can’t quite get her mind and heart around Arnold who, on the verge of trying to adopt a foster teen named David, is closer to having a “real” family. Loading her son with enough Jewish guilt to wound him forever, she fails to grasp the respectability of uncertain lives.

Urie is lovable, vulnerable and very much able. His vocal mannerisms, a kind of sliding emphasis on the ends of sentences, is more than affectation. Rather, it’s a barrier against intrusion, a shutting off to prevent access by others. Yet, when he bids for his mother’s understanding, the mask falls and laughter is punctuated by tears.

Mercedes Ruehl’s Ma is biting in her sarcasm, brilliant in her emotions, balancing both. Struggling   to remain reasonable, ambivalent about her role in Arnold’s present situation, she pulls every trick of Jewish guilt. Yet, despite her character’s vitriol, Ruehl seeds vinegary disappointment with tough love. She’s been away from the stage too long.

Ward Horton fights Ed’s instincts and confusions without succumbing to sentimentality, while Michael Hsu Rosen is a sexy Alan, quite aware of his allure, and Roxanna Hope Radja is a clear-eyed Laurel. The one weak spot is Jack DiFalco as David, the battered youngster Arnold wants to adopt. Described in the script as “fifteen going on thirty,” he looks more like thirty going on fifty. Aside from that, he makes the character screechy, unlikable and so annoying you dread his every appearance.

Director Moisés Kaufman keeps the acting precise, the pace quick and the feelings equalized. The production is purposely low-rent. David Zinn’s sets, David Lander’s lighting, Clint Ramos’ costumes and John Gromada’s sound design create a production redolent with nostalgia.

But history has caught up with “Torch Song.” Fierstein’s yearning for pieces of the pie has come to pass. Despite pockets of resistance, people like Arnold Beckoff have a seat at the table. Continuing efforts to put them back in the closet will fail because they are stubbornly, beautifully, out for all to see.

--David A. Rosenberg
Nov, 12, 2018

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