Torch Song, Harvey Fierstein’s breakthrough dramedy about a drag queen’s love life—which evolved from its Off-Off Broadway origins in 1978 to a smash hit, 1,222-performance Broadway run in 1982—is now getting its first New York revival, under Moisés Kaufman's smooth direction, at Broadway’s Second Stage.Michael Urie, the current go-to guy for overtly gay leading roles (Buyers and Cellars, Homos, or Everyone in America), plays Arnold Beckoff, the character indelibly imprinted by Fierstein’s own fiery performance on the minds of anyone who saw the original production or the 1988 film.
The Broadway and film versions were both titled Torch Song Trilogy to denote that it was three one-acts about Arnold. Fierstein has trimmed what ran nearly four hours down to two hours and 40 minutes, but it still sometimes seems overweight.
The scene names remain, beginning with “International Stud,” set at a gay bar of that name in 1971; “Fugue in a Nursery,” set in a farmhouse bedroom in 1975; and “Widows and Children 1st,” set in Arnold’s New York apartment in 1980. The titles are incorporated by designer David Zinn into the appropriate scenes. His excellent sets are matched by the fine lighting of David Lander, the costumes of Clint Ramos, and the sound design of Fitz Patton.
As expected, some of the material is a bit dated but, despite the plethora of gay-oriented material in the years that followed, enough remains that is still relevant to audiences today. Especially poignant are the moments that skirt around the permanence of same-sex relationships without ever mentioning the possibility of marriage. AIDS, then just on the cusp of its explosion, plays no part but must be buzzing in many theatregoers’ heads.
In “International Stud,” Arnold introduces himself in a direct address narrative as he puts on makeup and a gown in preparation for a drag queen gig; oddly, barely anything afterward is related to his profession. He falls for a handsome, studly guy named Ed (Ward Horton, terrifically understated) at the International Stud but Ed, who has nothing effeminate about him, turns out to be a confused bisexual who, while still attracted to Arnold, eventually marries Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radia, overdone).
“Fugue in a Nursery” takes us to Ed and Laurel’s upstate farm where a huge bed represents both their bedroom and the one being shared by Arnold and Alan (Michael Rosen, pleasantly affecting); the latter’s a gay lover of Ed’s who soon becomes Arnold’s boyfriend. With all those bodies in bed together (albeit actually apart) the Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice images are hard to avoid, just as is the scene’s tiresome garrulousness.
The second act is all “Widows and Children 1st,” the widows in question being Arnold, grieving for the loss of Alan, killed by gay bashers, and Ma, who flies up from Florida to pay her son a visit. The children are both Arnold and David (Jack DiFalco, too much), a smartass, gay 15-year-old foster child living with Arnold, who’s in the process of trying to adopt him. Arnold wants the same kind of family life as anyone else. Ma, though, isn’t ready to hear it.
This act becomes the play’s bagel and shmear when Arnold defiantly insists on being who he is, brooking no interference, even at the cost of breaking his mother’s heart. His final moment on stage, alone with a few mementos, may break yours as well.
Urie acts his charming heart out in what some are calling a tour de force performance as the self-involved, vulnerable but sharply outspoken, wisecracking, and kvetchy Arnold; however, for all his attempts to capture Arnold’s unique qualities as a look-at-me, out-of-the-closet Jewish homosexual from Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, Urie remains as far from Arnold as Easter eggs are from Hanukkah gelt.
He draws out his final syllables in Fierstein-like whining, flattens his vowels, dabs his tearfully runny nose, brushes his fingers through his hair, and does a myriad of mannered movements associated with countless similar characters on TV, the stage, and in films.
Urie, of course, gets some big laughs but the once-shocking scene at which I can still recall laughing my head off during the original—when a stranger has sex with Arnold from behind while dancing in the gay bar’s backroom—has lost its comic power and is now more amusing love tap than jocular knockout.
It sometimes seems that the Texas-raised Urie is definitely channeling Fierstein, his voice even assuming a sandpaper edge; the fly (I should say “ant”) in his performance, though, is its failure to believably cross the ethnic and geographic divide. When he says “ahnt” instead of “ant” for “aunt,” as any good Brighton Beach boy (Jewish or not) would, the matzo crumbles; you can take the boy out of Texas but you can’t take Texas out of the boy.
For New York authenticity one need only listen to Jackson Heights-raised Mercedes Ruehl as Arnold’s mother, Ma, played on Broadway with similarly hilarious results by Estelle Getty (who used similarly acerbic shtick on TV’s Golden Girls). You have to wait through the talky, often draggy, and insufficiently funny Act One before Ma enters. Once she’s on, though, you don’t want her to leave despite her cutting homophobia, and a tongue as sharp as Passover horseradish. Ruehl’s Ma is so perfectly calibrated you never feel—as you sometimes do with Urie—that she’s pushing it. She underplays so magnificently that when she replaces her comic pistols with maternal cannons you need time for the smoke to clear.
Ruehl’s scenes with Arnold as he and Ma struggle and fight over their different attitudes are the show’s most potent highlights; the electric ferocity of their love-hate dynamic is worth every penny of your ticket price. It made me forget that Urie isn’t a perfect fit for Arnold. He was a human being fighting for the right to be himself in the face of misunderstanding from a woman who, for all her maternal passion, isn’t ready to accept her own son for what he is.
Gay or straight, a lot of people know what that feels like.
Second Stage Theater/Tony Kiser Theater
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through December 9