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 piñata. 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.
PHOTO CREDIT: JOAN MARCUS