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Theatre in Review: Torch Song (Second Stage Theater)

Mercedes Ruehl, Michael Urie. Photo: Joan Marcus

Oedipus and Jocasta. Coriolanus and Volumnia. Amanda and Tom Wingfield. Alexander and Mrs. Portnoy. To this list of classically fraught mother-son relationships you can add Arnold Beckoff and his Ma, here impersonated by Michael Urie and Mercedes Ruehl in the current revival of Torch Song. "The Sylvia Sidney of Miami Beach," Ma doesn't enter Arnold's Manhattan apartment; she takes it, like Sherman took Georgia. Her tailored suit may be wilting from the heat, her dogs might be barking from standing for an hour on the airport bus, but the fiercely styled hair remains immobile, like a frozen merengue, lending her a monumental air; she has a presence and she's not afraid to use it. Dropping her luggage, she cases the joint, looking for fresh things to disapprove of. Her eyes land on Arnold's friend Ed, and, assuming they're an item -- they aren't, although they once were -- she says, in a tone that brooks no argument, "How do you do? I'm the mother." Arnold, trying to smooth things over, says, "I didn't expect you this early." "Obviously," she replies, eyeing Ed, clinically.

For some reason, God has seen to it to gift her with a son who is both gay and a professional drag queen, and while she accepts her fate, she rails against it, perpetually and with undiminished energy. At least she can use it for material. After Arnold gives her a flip answer ("How do you find the roaches?" "I turn on the lights."), she explains the rules: "Arnold, when a man's with his friends, he makes wife jokes. When he's with his wife, he makes mother jokes. When he's with his mother, he lets her make the jokes." Ruehl's comic timing is as lethal as the late Bea Arthur's, as is that voice, liked a passel of knitting needles, shredding any attempt at pretense. Her Ma is Medea with punchlines, a woman wronged by fate but going down swinging. No wonder that, from time to time, Urie's Arnold wraps his hands around his head, grimacing like Gloria Swanson's Norma Desmond in the later stages of her derangement. Really, it's the only rational response.

During her visit, Ma will find plenty to joke about, and even more to infuriate her. She expects to be introduced to David, Arnold's new "roommate" (her preferred term for lover, a careful diminution that is guaranteed to scald). Instead, she finds Ed, Arnold's ex, in flight from his wife, sleeping on Arnold's couch. To her horror, she discovers that David is a teenager, whom Arnold, his foster parent, intends to adopt. And, most gallingly, she learns that Arnold, whose young lover has died, considers himself to be a widow, just like her. This cues a brutally frank exchange that, decades after it was written, ragingly deconstructs the twisted logic of the closet: If Arnold is honest with his mother, she is disgusted by what she hears. If he covers up the facts of his life, they have nothing to discuss, and any possibility of intimacy is foreclosed. Disappointment or distance -- which shall it be?

It's a question that still resonates for many young LGBTQ people and is one reason why Torch Song still packs a punch. Originally cobbled together from three stylistically different one-acts, each of which had previously played Off Broadway, Torch Song Trilogy (as it was then known) was a surprise blockbuster, running over 1,200 performances and earning the Tony Award for best play. Harvey Fierstein, its author and star, was the man for the moment: For the first time, Broadway audiences were confronted with a gay protagonist who wasn't ashamed of himself or his career, who wanted a long-term man of his own and children to raise, and who wasn't shy about telling off his mother when she was out of line. It was a battle cry of pride, sounded just as the horror of AIDS was descending on the gay community. If you weren't there, it's hard to explain exactly what that meant.

Torch Song Trilogy was a young man's work, and, for all its originality and exuberance, the seams showed. For the current revival, in addition to shedding one third of its title, Fierstein has pruned the script considerably, and director Moisés Kaufman has worked with his cast and designers to make it into a more unified experience. David Zinn, the scenic designer, has built the title into each set, using old-fashioned -- but period-accurate -- neon lights. (He also frames the action in a proscenium with tiny incandescent lightbulbs, and a damaged red neon sign spells out the play's title; such tawdry glamour is perfect for Arnold.) Part I, "International Stud," set in 1971, is a series of monologues and duologues featuring Arnold and Ed, the bisexual high school teacher who falls for him, then decides he needs a more traditional -- read heterosexual -- way of life. Part 2, "Fugue in a Nursery," set a couple of years later, is a highly stylized comedy staged in a giant bed, as Arnold, Ed, Laurel (Ed's wife), and Alan (Arnold's young lover) engage in a roundelay of home truths and seductions. Part 3, "Widows and Children First!," is set in 1980; Alan has died, Ed's marriage is in tatters, and Arnold is about to complete his adoption of David. And then Ma arrives, guaranteeing fireworks for all.

The tallish, slender Urie is a very different physical type from Fierstein, and a couple of jokes about Arnold's size could be profitably cut, but in all other ways, he is the character -- extravagant, compulsively honest, most often overdramatic, at times harrowingly needy, yet capable of whipping up a towering, Biblical rage. (He is, after all, his mother's son.) He takes us amusingly through a list of his drag names (among them, Virginia Hamm and Bertha Venation) and he lays bare Arnold's breaking heart in confrontations with Ed, who quickly cools on the idea of them as a couple. A trip to a backroom bar cues a Chaplinesque routine in which, taken from behind by a total stranger in inky darkness, Arnold quickly grows bored and tries to light a cigarette. And when he finally lays down the law, informing Ma that those who would judge him are not welcome in his home, we understand that, in his way, Arnold is a man of steel, holding on to a sense of self-worth in the face of breakups, violence, and withheld parental approval. Urie seems to go from strength to strength these days, and this may be his finest performance yet.

As Ed, a character who can be all-too-easily dismissed as a selfish user, Ward Horton does thoughtful, detailed work, gradually shedding layers of self-deception as he, Arnold, and David fall into an ad hoc family arrangement. Roxanna Hope Radja employs a light, witty touch as Laurel, who, behind her understanding appearance, is beginning to think she made a terrible mistake at the altar. The role of David is heavily romanticized -- Fierstein would have you believe that in only six months a feral street kid has become a wisecracking teenager straight out of TV sitcom; still, Jack DiFalco makes the character work. Michael Rosen's sweet but slightly dim Alan is immensely likable, even when he makes a really bad choice in a hayloft with Ed.

Zinn's ingenious set design uses a series of movable platforms for "International Stud;" a vast, raked bed set against a blue sky for "Fugue in a Nursery;" and, for "Widows and Children First!," a box set into which have been worked endless images of bunnies, an Arnold favorite. Clint Ramos, the costume designer, uses bunny slippers for both Arnold and Ma to amusingly make the point that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. His designs also clarify the fashion differences between the early '70s and the dawn of the Reagan era. David Lander's lighting is especially beautiful in "International Stud," which uses big-beam looks for noirish effects that are highly suitable for a play that unfolds in dive nightclubs and dark, seamy bars. (The play opens with an evocative effect, a female silhouette singing into a stand mic.) Each of the three sets features an old-fashioned Bakelite radio, the better for Fitz Patton, the sound designer, to deliver such torch songs as "No Regrets" and "I Will Never Turn My Back on You." He also provides such disco classics as "If You Could Read My Mind," as delivered by Viola Wills.

Although definitely a period piece, the day Torch Song can be relegated to the shelf has yet to arrive. The doors have blown off the closet, the Sunday Times runs gay and lesbian wedding announcements, Will & Grace is once again America's favorite sitcom, and now, for the first time, serious attention is being paid to the needs and challenges of the transgender community. But Fierstein's fiery comedy is a vivid reminder of how far we've come -- also, that change only happens when individuals stand up and say, This is how I will live my life. Harvey Fierstein did, and he became one of the key figures of his era's Broadway theatre. That's something to think about. -- David Barbour


(20 October 2017)

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