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Carrying the Torch

Brooklyn's Gallery Players celebrate their 40th anniversary with a revival of former member Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy.

By New York City
Seth Rudetsky in Torch Song Trilogy
(© Stephen Nachamie)
Seth Rudetsky in Torch Song Trilogy
(© Stephen Nachamie)
Let's get one thing straight: The Gallery Players in Brooklyn is not a community theater. Well, not anymore. "It was in 1967, when the theater was conceived," says Matt Schicker, vice-president of Gallery's board. "But some time back in the 1970s, it became a showcase theater -- and that's what we've been ever since."

Since 1989, the company has been housed in the basement of what used to be a school. It presents seven shows a year -- four plays, three musicals -- and a new play festival each June. "That doesn't mean readings," says Schicker. "We do productions of those plays. Bare bones productions, but productions nonetheless."

In choosing plays each season, the company doesn't always get its wishes. "Because we're technically in New York, we've always been denied the rights to do The Little Foxes," says Schicker by way of example. But sometimes dreams come true. "Being in Brooklyn makes us close enough that we can get some writers out here to see us. Terrence McNally gave us the rights to do Dedication, or The Stuff of Dreams next month, partly because he's a Gallery fan. I've seen interviews where he's called us 'the little theater that could' and said that when he wrote Dedication -- which is about the possibility of creating and sustaining a small theater -- we were one of his inspirations."

The Players certainly got their wish with their current production, Harvey Fierstein's 1983 Tony Award-winning play Torch Song Trilogy, which is on view through December 10. Comments Schicker, "There's real significance in doing this play in our 40th anniversary season. When Harvey was growing up in Brooklyn, he was a Gallery Player. He designed sets and posters for us and appeared in such shows as Barefoot in the Park, where he played the Telephone Man."

Harvey Fierstein in  Barefoot in the Park
Harvey Fierstein in Barefoot in the Park
The three-and-a-half-hour Torch Song is a big undertaking for the group. It consists of three one-act plays: The International Stud, about drag performer Arnold Beckoff's troubled relationship with Ed, a schoolteacher who is also attracted to women; Fugue in a Nursery, in which Arnold and his new lover spend a weekend with Ed and his wife; and Widows and Children First!, which deals with Arnold's adoption of a gay teenage son and the opinions of his awfully opinionated mother.

When director Stephen Nachamie was asked to stage the show, he had a wild casting idea for the role of Arnold: musical director/performer Seth Rudetsky. "Arnold is a force of nature," he says. "You have to have someone who can sustain all three plays, and someone with great wit, so it wasn't long before I thought of Seth. We'd worked together a bit: He was musical director for Bobby Longbottom's A Chorus Line, which I assistant stage managed, and I was assistant director for Seth's Chess and Funny Girl concerts for The Actors' Fund."

But Nachamie knew that Rudetsky was a busy guy, what with the weekly Seth's Broadway Chatterbox series at Don't Tell Mama and his gig as a deejay on Sirius Radio, among other projects. Furthermore, when Torch Song was being planned, Rudetsky was looking over galleys for his now-published Q Guide to Broadway and preparing The Actors' Fund concert production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. "I waited till the day after Whorehouse to call him, so he could have a minute to breathe -- but not too many minutes," says Nachimie. "I had to get to him before someone else snatched him up for something."

It turned out that Rudetsky was indeed interested. "I saw this play when I was president of our chapter of the International Thespian Society at my high school, and I loved it," he says, "though I do recall having a problem with Harvey's speaking voice. Anyway, I told Stephen, 'I want to be auditioned. I want to make sure it's a fit for both of us.' And there was another thing. The play says that Arnold should be in his 20s; I'm in my 30s."

Rudetsky passed the audition and accepted the role, even though it would entail a two hour round-trip commute from his Manhattan home for each rehearsal and performance. "People ask me, 'Where do you find the time to memorize a three-hour show?' It's all that time on the train," he explains. "By the way, I'm playing Arnold as 30 to 36. You know something? I think that's the age he was meant to be. Harvey saying that Arnold's in his 20s has to do with the fact that he was always precocious and ahead of so many of us."

Schicker says that the Gallery Players have a loyal following. "Sometimes, they say, 'I like it better than Broadway,' " he reports. But the gay-themed Torch Song Trilogy hasn't pleased everyone: "One couple came to the house manager at intermission and demanded a refund, which they didn't get." On the other hand, a certain audience member was quite happy with the choice of play: "Jackie Fierstein, Harvey's mother, has been one of our subscribers for a long, long time."


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