Review: This ‘Torch Song’ Still Blazes
By Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, October 20, 2017
A confession: I never saw the original Torch Song Trilogy, or the three separate plays that came before it. So I have nothing to compare it to, no memory of Harvey Fierstein in the lead role, no sense of how surprising and brave this must have been in 1981.
But it’s hard for me to imagine, eliminating the surprise factor, that it could have been any more enjoyable, funnier, or any more touching that the current trimmer, sleeker incarnation at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage.
The story of nice Jewish boy/drag queen Arnold Beckoff and the people who love and torment him (the job description of every Jewish mother, right?) opens with Arnold in his dressing room at the divey club where he performs as—great drag name coming up—Virginia Ham, singing those torch songs that give the play its name. It also gives the play its theme—like the great torch singers, Arnold is looking for love, home, family, acceptance, at a time when those were out of reach for gay men who didn’t want to play straight.
It’s hard even for those of us who were adults back then to remember that people—ordinary, decent people—thought the idea of an out-of-the-closet gay relationship, or even an out-of-the-closet gay man, was ridiculous. It’s hard to cast our minds back to a time when a mother pleading with her gay son to stop shoving “it”—his homosexuality—in her face was perfectly understandable. Arnold’s mother sounds ridiculously cruel, acting as if his homosexuality were some sort of rebellion. For theater-goes under 30 (a small group, admittedly), it may seem absurdly quaint, like the way people spoke of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.
The play is a not-so-gentle reminder of how far we’ve come, not that it doesn’t seem like very tenuous growth lately.
But Torch Song is not an openly political act; it’s intensely personal. As Arnold, the remarkable Michael Urie is incredibly endearing, those big beagle eyes laughing and tearing up at the same time. Urie is one of those remarkable actors who is so exposed that you see the defiance behind the tears and the pain underneath the laughter. There are layers in his performance, along with a vast charm. He’s doing a funny thing with his voice here, lingering on the last syllable of every sentence, like a weird combination of Paul Lynde and Snagglepuss. Maybe he’s trying to sound like Fierstein? Or that’s his impression of a Brooklyn accent? It hits the ear strangely at first, but you get over it pretty fast.
You get over, also, the references to his weight, to his unattractiveness. Arnold laments, “I have never been young and beautiful?” Excuse me? Someone get me my glasses. They don’t get more appealing than skinny Urie. It seems odd that in all the trimming, those lines remained.
The second act takes place in one gigantic bed, big enough to hold four people (Arnold, his hunky boyfriend Alan, his on-again, off-again boyfriend Ed, and Ed’s fiancé Laurel). The players pop in and out of the covers to connect in multiple combinations.
Laurel knows about Arnold and Ed’s past, and she’s perfectly fine with it, even praising her own sophistication. “Imagine being hostess to your lover’s ex and his new boyfriend—it’s downright Noël Coward!” Laurel quips. It’s a little—actually a lot—hard to believe. She’s not only ignoring some vital questions about her future husband’s sexuality, she’s celebrating them. Not buying it.
But then comes the second act, set five years later, and Mercedes Ruehl arrives as Arnold’s mother (known only as “Ma”) and something happens. First you wonder, who is that old lady with the silver wig of inflexible structure? And then she speaks and, oy! that voice. That purring stiletto of a voice!
Ruehl takes the wheel and drives away with the play. Urie wisely doesn’t try to wrest control away from her. Maybe because he’s a nice guy (he seems like a nice guy, doesn’t he?) or maybe because he’s a confident enough performer to know he’s the one who owns the night no matter how powerfully Mercedes puts the metal to the pedal.
I think that’s my quota of bad car metaphors.
Reuhl and Urie are perfectly believable as mother and son. They feel right, they sound right. You can feel the love, the fury, and the history between them. Urie’s cry for acceptance is almost too raw to watch. At the end, you are drained, moved, and thrilled. This torch lights up the night.
Torch Song presented by Second Stage Theater at the Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street through December 3, 2017. Run time is 2 hours and 40 minutes with 1 intermission. Written by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Moisés Kaufman; scenic design by David Zinn; costume design by Clint Ramos; lighting design by David Lander; sound design by Fitz Patton. Cast: Michael Urie, Mercedes Ruehl, Jack DiFalco, Ward Horton, Roxanna Hope Radja, and Michael Rosen.
Cover: Michael Urie in ‘Torch Song;’ photo: Joan Marcus.