'Torch Song': Theater Review

Matthew Murphy
Michael Urie in 'Torch Song'
Homecoming queen.
2/24/2019

Michael Urie and Mercedes Ruehl head the cast of Harvey Fierstein's landmark serio-comedy that gave a voice to gay men searching for love, respect and family in the pre-equality era.

Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song is a big wet smacker of a play that was asking righteous questions about gay identity, dignity and domesticity decades before such advancements as same-sex marriage, adoption rights and affirmative cultural representation became a reality. The revival first seen at Second Stage a year ago now comes to Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, where the milestone work opened in 1982 for an astonishing three-year run. Perhaps there's something liberating about being back within these historically significant walls that has coaxed Michael Urie out from behind the author's shadow to seize ownership of the heart-on-his-sleeve protagonist, Arnold Beckoff, in a virtuoso turn.

Moises Kaufman's highly entertaining production comes on the heels of incisive recent revivals of two other classics from the queer canon, Angels in America and The Boys in the Band. With Moonlight Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney's terrific 2012 play Choir Boy, about homophobic tensions in a prestigious African-American prep school, due in the spring, this is a remarkable period for gay-themed theater (albeit predominantly male) on Broadway stages.

Fierstein's semi-autobiographical play — originally titled Torch Song Trilogy and comprised of three one-acts running a combined four hours — is unique among those works in that it examines the period between Stonewall and AIDS, when gay rights had gained forward momentum, but protective legislation and mainstream acceptance were still some way off. Many would argue that the battles have not all been won, with recent signals that the Trump administration intends to roll back transgender rights, and hate crimes on the rise across the country. The Pulse nightclub mass shooting in 2016, the deadliest act of violence against the LGBTQ community in U.S. history, was a chilling reminder that intolerance endures, a fact echoed by Fierstein in one of this play's most affecting plot points.

The edited Torch Song, abbreviated like its title down to a brisk two-hours-50-minutes with one intermission, certainly contains its share of tragedy, conflict and sad incomprehension. But it remains the supreme essence of the playwright's signature humor — warm, just as often self-deprecating as bitingly accusatory, and unapologetically sentimental.

The production felt a little choppy and uncertain last fall, with the talented Urie doubling down on self-satirizing Arnold by rendering the lovelorn professional drag queen a mushy caricature. Not only does he now feel more like a flesh-and-blood person — his needs and vulnerabilities and the self-defense mechanism of his caustic wit all achingly human; his vocal mannerisms part of who he is, not just a layer of performance — but the staging has acquired greater fluidity and emotional richness. David Zinn's sets (ranging from suggestive minimalism through playful stylization to homey detail) and David Lander's descriptive lighting also look gorgeous on the Hayes stage, as do the pleasingly understated period costumes of Clint Ramos.

The piece remains broken down into three parts, their individual titles and time frames emblazoned in neon, popping up under the big, half-busted red signage that carries the play's umbrella title, like a faded old vaudeville theater. The first, International Stud, takes place in 1971, opening with Arnold in front of his dressing room mirror, mid-transformation into his drag persona du jour, Virginia Ham. A fan of the great torch singers like Helen Morgan, Arnold confides in the audience, while putting the finishing touches on his makeup, that he's been young and beautiful, but never both at once.

The first-act title comes from a cruisy West Village backroom sex bar where Arnold refuses to get in amongst the sweaty action until a rocky romance with handsome bi-now-gay-later schoolteacher Ed (Ward Horton) nudges him into the crowded darkness in search of solace. Urie's highly physical performance is full of flamboyant gesticulation. But arguably his most irresistible shtick is when Arnold attempts to be a nice Jewish boy, making polite chit-chat, and smoke a cigarette, all while providing back-door access to a nameless stranger. It's a testament to Fierstein's writing and Urie's characterization that even in such moments of debauched hilarity, Arnold's burning hunger for a loving, stable relationship is what defines him.

Part two, Fugue in a Nursery, moves ahead to summer 1975, when Arnold is invited to spend a weekend with Ed and his future wife Laurel at Ed's country house. Arnold surprises them by bringing along his new boyfriend Alan (Michael Hsu Rosen), a twinky former hustler-turned-model, whose presence unsettles jealous Ed but delights open-minded Laurel. She thinks it's all terribly sophisticated, like a Noel Coward comedy, though it's actually closer to farce, staged in a massive bed with the four characters popping up in varying combinations from under a patchwork quilt.

All the strands — of Arnold's longing for a family and a life resembling that of the mother with whom he remains eternally at loggerheads, as well as something approaching resolution in Ed's confused sexuality — come to fruition in the lovely final act, Widows and Children First, set in 1980. The longest and most complex of the three parts, it remains flawed by problematic casting: Jack DiFalco reads a tad too old to be convincing as David, the 15-year-old gay foster kid Arnold hopes to adopt after a nine-month trial period, and the actor over-compensates by playing it quite broadly, to grating effect.

That weakness, however, does nothing to detract from the brilliant fireworks when Urie and the irreplaceable Mercedes Ruehl gear up for the whiplash-inducing ricochet of mother-son affection and bitter division once Mrs. Beckoff descends from Florida in her bullet-proof bouffant helmet. Ruehl's every patronizing smile, disapproving frown, curled eyebrow, curt dismissal or enraged outburst is perfectly calibrated — part of a larger-than-life characterization that nonetheless plays as real and sympathetic, even at her most monstrous. When Ruehl starts flinging her large, expressive hands about, pointing an index finger that cuts the air like a steel blade, it's clear that Arnold's innate drama queen is a genetic inheritance.

In between the second and third parts, Arnold has suffered a devastating loss in a horrific act of violence, and when he dares to equate that gut punch with his recently widowed Ma's grief after 35 years of marriage, she sees red.

The character may never entirely get beyond her obtuse refusal to understand that being gay is not some perverse choice, but Fierstein refuses to condemn her for it. Instead, in a moment that encapsulates the play's defining thrust, he has Arnold demand her respect with a forthrightness that will either doom or save their relationship. It's a powerful scene, all the more so because Kaufman has deftly modulated the tone from borderline sitcom to poignant domestic drama.

In one especially beautiful reprieve of tenderness between the two, Mrs. Beckoff tells her son that the pain of losing a partner never goes away: "You get used to it. And it's good. It's good because it makes sure you don't forget." That simple, direct sentiment will have many in the theater dabbing their eyes. And for LGBTQ audiences who have lived through the complicated process of a parent's acceptance, or struggle with it, the arrival at a tenuous common ground is profoundly moving.

There are delicate final-act brushstrokes also in the moves of Ed — married to Laurel but camping out on Arnold's sofa bed in a trial separation — to give it another shot with his former lover. Horton and Radja both bring sensitive shadings to their characters, while Hsu Rosen's natural spark gives the boyish Alan a charm that makes his immaturity forgivable — even if Alan is the one role somewhat shortchanged in this abridged version.

For anyone who saw Fierstein as Arnold in the original production that made him a Broadway treasure, that memory will remain indelible. And there are surviving references to his trademark deep croak of a voice and his generous girth that don't quite fit with the slender Urie in the role. But this Torch Song sings. Taking a second stab at the material, Kaufman and his cast hit every note of humor and heartache in a durable work that functions as both a historical piece and a universal expression of our search for human connection and the comforts of family.

Venue: Helen Hayes Theater, New York
Cast: Michael Urie, Mercedes Ruehl, Ward Horton, Jack DiFalco, Roxanna Hope Radja, Michael Hsu Rosen
Director: Moises Kaufman
Playwright: Harvey Fierstein
Set designer: David Zinn
Costume designer: Clint Ramos
Lighting designer: David Lander
Sound designer: John Gromada
Presented by Richie Jackson, Eric Kuhn & Justin Mikita, Stephanie P. McClelland, Ken Fakler, David Mirvish, Lassen Blume/Karmen Boyz Productions, CJC & Priest/Judith Ann Abrams, Burnt Umber/True Love Productions, Caiola Productions/Torchbearers, Jujamcyn Theaters, Second Stage Theater