Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Torch Song
       By Joseph Cervelli

It has been so long that I have seen Harvey Fierstein’s landmark 1982 play “Torch Song Trilogy” which garnered him the Tony Award for best play I had forgotten how wonderfully funny and intensely moving it was. 

Fierstein has trimmed the show now entitled “Torch Song” at Second Stage Theater from about four hours to a concise and every bit rewarding under three.  While the playwright appeared in the original off off Broadway and Broadway production now the immensely talented Michael Urie (“Buyer and Seller” “The Government Inspector”) takes over and with a supercharged adrenaline is simply mesmerising. 

The first section of the show entitled The International Stud takes place in 1974 at the gay bar so named which was located in the Village. Urie portrays Arnold the drag queen, Virginia Ham. His monologue is filled with self deprecating humor and, at times, pathos explaining that he really wants an international stud to fill his life although still would like someone to say those three words, “I love you.” Fierstein’s quicksilver humor, such as “a drag queen is like an oil painting--You gotta stand back from it to get the full effect” still tickles the funny bone. Throughout the playwright’s writing is so razor sharp both in its delicious humor (the simulated sex that Arnold engages in just proves how accomplished the superb Urie is at physical comedy) and more serious situations. 

In the bar, Arnold meets the handsome bisexual Ed (an excellent Ward Horton) and they hit it off and have a tentative relationship. Arnold is so needy and demanding  that the unsure Ed cannot devote the amount of time Arnold craves.  And he is devastated when Ed tells him that he could never love him the way he loves his girlfriend. How does someone like Arnold or anyone for that matter deal with that except to end the affair. 

The second section of the show Fugue in a Nursery takes place in 1975 and has Arnold and his boy toy Alan (a perfect Michael Rosen) visiting Ed and his wife Laurel (a delightful Roxanna Hope Radja) whose idea it was to invite the guests (Ed has previously informed her about his relationship with Arnold.) Again Fierstein has infused this section with spirited dialogue--loved Laurel finding the entire situation “downright Noel Coward” and in a way it has the allure of a gay “Private Lives.” You see all four of the participants in this section in a huge bed which is basically a platform (smartly designed by David Zinn and used in the first act) with interplay of dialogue that vividly captures the mood. What makes the scene work so well is that Alan is  more than just a sex object--he may be young but knows exactly what he wants and is truly in love with the frequently overbearing Arnold.

The third section occurs in 1981 and entitled Widows and Children First taking place in Arnold’s apartment. We learn that something tragic has befallen Alan. Ed is separated from Laurel and currently sleeping on a sofa bed in a platonic situation with Arnold. Into the picture come two new players. The sixteen year old David (Jack DiFalco) who is a runaway and taken in by a caring Arnold who acts like a father or as David would prefer addressing  him, “Ma.” He has taken this misguided youth who is gay given him guidance and makes sure he is well taken care of. While DiFalco is quite funny and very well portrays David as a confused young boy full of anguish from his days on the street he does appear a bit too old for the part looking closer to twenty. Then arriving on the scene like a cannonball just fired is Arnold’s mother Ma (the incomparable Mercedes Ruehl). The interaction between the incessantly annoying Ma who can volley from being  quite funny to mercilessly cruel and Arnold is like an exploding piƱata. Both of these extraordinarily fine actors play off each other so well that one also needs to give credit to Moises Kaufman for his sterling direction and making each character far from stereotypes but real people. 

While Every performer is ardently committed to his/her role, Urie takes utmost credit for the success of this revival for he is the hallmark of this production. He emanates but never impersonates the invincible Fierstein with the latter’s distinctive raspy voice. At times Urie lowers the decibels when he speaks and yet develops his own style of whining without being annoying. His Arnold with all the nervous energy,  tics and wailing of arms is fighting for acceptance which is something the playwright has always fought for. 

It is sometimes astounding to think that this play was written post Stonewall and pre AIDS and yet was so far ahead of its time. Imagine a gay man wanting to adopt a child or wanting or a bisexual man coming to grips with the fact he may have used that as an excuse for being truly homosexual during that time period.  

There is nothing dated about this dazzling work that is given such a richly realized production. 

Tickets are available at the Second Stage Theater 305 West 43rd Street or by calling 212.246.4422. As of this date the show has extended its run through Dec. 3. 


Friday, October 20, 2017

Lonely Planet

by Joseph Cervelli

The Keen Company is reviving the Steven Dietz play “Lonely Planet” which was first seen 25 years ago. While I never saw the original, this current production at The Clurman Theater at  Theater Row about two men during the height of the AIDS epidemic (although AIDS itself is not mentioned)  left me cold. While Dietz does aim for something meaningful the two characters never feel like friends even though they have known each other for years. Also, neither really is all that likable a character. To make matters worse, Jody (Arnie Burton) who owns a map store (comfortably designed by Antihuman Bhatia) appears to be so callous in the play’s last scene that it left me in wonderment as to the playwright's true intention. 

The flamboyant Carl (Matt McGrath) spends most scenes bringing in chairs into the store which he salvages from the apartments of friends who have succumbed to the disease. At first, Ionesco’s “The Chairs” comes to mind and in a bit of a joke the playwright actually has Jody with a copy of the play later on. Why indeed would Jody allow these chairs to clutter his store when he is such a fussy, organized individual makes little sense. Burton appears too stiff in the role although it was probably written that way. Not an easy character to warm up to even though he has just about self-exiled himself to his store,  and you are never quite sure if he even leaves it to go home.  In one of a series of monologues  he talks about  about the “Greenland Problem” which basically is that on the classic  Mercator’s map Greenland is not in accurate proportion being much smaller than it appears. He goes on to explain why it was made that way by the ancient cartographer and somehow there is an analogy here between that and people whom he knows that are dying from the disease. The reasoning seems more pedantic than anything else. He also reveals several of his dreams which in which fear plays a part. Perhaps, a metaphor for why he stays in his store fending off any sense of foreboding illness. 

Carl is more an an enigma in the sense you really don’t know what he does for a living (Jody mentions a laundry list of possible professions) and seems to live in a continual flux and delves in flights of fancy. There is talk several times about a game called “truth” they play but never delve into that.  Except for the play’s last scene or two McGrath who was so memorable in “The Legend of Georgia McBride” gives a much too overblown performance which director Jonathan Silverman could have tethered in. Jody and Carl who while friends never have any real connection thoughout the play  and when they speak of the passing of friends you never feel any real real grief. Not every show needs to pack the centrifugal force of other plays dealing with AIDS like “As Is” or “The Normal Heart” but real emotion is lost in this one which, sadly, becomes tedious.

Tickets are available at Theater Row 410 West 42nd Street or by calling 212.239.6200. The limited engagement as of this date is November 18. 


Monday, October 9, 2017

The Honeymooners

By Joseph Cervelli

Fans (myself included) of the classic 50’s television show “The Honeymooners” may find themselves with a smile on their faces, well, at least, for the first half or so of the new musical premiering at Paper Mill Playhouse. While Dusty Kay and Bill Nuss have provided a fairly pleasant first act book, the mediocre second act easily turn that smile to a frown. 

The good news is that the always reliable set designer Beowulf Boritt has recreated the Kramden’s drab Brooklyn apartment as it was first scene in the television series and has provided some nifty additional sets along with on target costumes by Jess Goldstein. 

Michael McGrath who makes a perfect Kramden not only looks and is built (probably, with a fat suit) like Jackie Gleason who personified the lovable blowhard bus driver but has Gleason’s many movements down pat. Notice the way he even wipes his forehead after he makes verbal blunders never thinking before speaking. 

It is a pleasure having the immensely talented Leslie Kritzer back on stage here channeling Ralph’s always sensible wife, Alice. It is a treat that composers Stephen Weiner (music) and Peter Mills (lyrics) give her a knockout jazz number “A Woman’s Work” which stops the show in the second act. The overall music is genial enough and the lyrics even better. Although the rather dumb “Love Goes Down the Drain” and “The Raccoon Hymn”  go nowhere. 

Michael Mastro is quite good as the goofy sewer worker, Ed Norton, who is both neighbor and best pal to Ralph who always has some new foolish idea to make it big. In a funny twist, it is Norton who comes up with ideas, such as, a device to record tv shows and a phone you can take with you anywhere. All ideas torpedoed by the not so smart Ralph.  

Here Kramden who is hoping for a promotion which he never gets  decides to enter a jingle contest for Faciamatta Mazzeroni  cheese named after its founder played by an always humorous Lewis J. Stadlen.  The intuitive Alice helps Ralph with the words to the jingle and the two men not only win the contest but are offered jobs by the ad agency who sponsored the contest. . The two advertising gents  seem like they came directly from “How To Succeed In Business.....” especially Lewis Cleale who seems to be doing an over the top impression of Charles Nelson Reilly who originated the role in that 60’s musical. While the show is well staged by the gifted choreographer Joshua Bergasse, the dancing on the office tables doing a Tarantella and then Ralph  Irish jig is unnecessarily silly. 

There is a subplot which feels more like a filler than anything else. Trixie (a shrill sounding Laura Bell Bundy) is no longer just a housewife married to Ed, but a singer. She actually was a burlesque star who met (in an unneeded flashback) her future husband outside the theater she had been performing. She auditions for a new show and has a number with the lecherous Francois (Kevin Worley) who is both her ex-boss and one time boyfriend. There is a dreadful second act production number headlined by Trixie which showing a Nativity scene which is a promo for the the popular Faoiamatta cheese. And by the end of the show there is a surprise little twist which is little more than a gimmick.

The pleasures besides the three leads are moments plucked from the original show. The famous Kramden sayings, “King of the castle,” “I have a Big Mouth,” etc. and the memorable scenes that include Ed teaching Ralph how to hit a golf ball and “Captain Video.” If you don’t know what I am speaking of you are most definitely not the target audience for the this show. And that leads to a bigger problem if the show, as intended, does arrive on Broadway. If  you are not of a certain age much of this is will leave you cold.   

While director John Rando keeps the show moving at a jaunty speed, the entire production feels like the generally inferior musical variety show Gleason included a new and poor edition of  "The Honeymooners" after the original series ended. 

Tickets are available at the Paper Mill Playhouse 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ. or by calling 973.376.4343. The limited engagement ends October. 29. 


                                 PHOTOS TWO AND THREE: JERRY DALIA