Harvey Fierstein's breakthrough play about gay family life in the 1970s gets an off-Broadway revival at Second Stage.
Have we been too hasty to declare "mission accomplished" on gay rights? It's a question that hovers over the revival of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song at Second Stage Theatre, much like the bright neon signs that actually hang over the stage, announcing the title and date of each of the three parts. Those lambent placards threaten to relegate Fierstein's play to the museum of gay nostalgia, which is a real shame considering how relevant the story continues to be.
During its groundbreaking 1982 Broadway run, it was billed as Torch Song Trilogy to account for the three plays that make up Fierstein's queer epic with music (torch songs are lost-cause love ballads, and Fierstein leaves it to the discretion of the director to choose the right ones for the transitions). The first play, The International Stud, takes place in and around the backroom bar where mouthy drag queen Arnold (Michael Urie) meets all-American bisexual Ed (Ward Horton), initiating an on-again-off-again romance. By the second play, Fugue in a Nursery, Arnold and his new lover, Alan (a boyish Michael Rosen), are spending a long weekend in the country with Ed and his girlfriend, Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja, making an extraordinary character seem mundane). As with the original production, director Moisés Kaufman stages this second part in a giant bed, unsubtly underscoring the sexual fluidity of the piece.
Bedroom politics dominate the first two acts, but the high stakes of the play come into focus during the emotional roller coaster of the third, Widows and Children First! Here we meet Arnold's foster son, troubled gay teen David (Jack DiFalco). We also encounter Arnold's mother (Mercedes Ruehl). Fierstein teases us with a glimpse of functionality (Arnold helping David with his homework, Ma fixing latkes), but we come to recognize happiness as an unstable element in this modern family: "You call this a life? This is a sickness," Ma bluntly tells Arnold. On top of her rejection looms the real threat of physical danger, as evidenced by a fresh black eye that David acquired at school.
Fierstein (who was 23 years old when the first play debuted at La MaMa) has a lot to say about gay life in America, much of it incredibly prescient in the context of the last 40 years. The courageous honesty and family solidarity that he pushes in Torch Song are the same values that won same-sex marriage in all 50 states. While the original production took nearly four hours to make its case, this pared-down version clocks in at a trim two hours and 30 minutes. Fierstein has made smart cuts to his own script, revealing himself to be a more confident writer who no longer feels the need to throw the kitchen sink at the audience for a laugh.
Still, Arnold's wit is so obviously written in Fierstein's voice that the one-liners practically rasp off the page. Urie addresses this by affecting his own protuberant accent, which is more Hanna-Barbera than Brooklyn. Urie compensates for this distracting choice with an otherwise emotionally honest and hilarious performance. Few actors can switch between comedy and drama and make it seem as natural as Urie does.
Lips pursed with disapproval, Ruehl gives a memorable performance as the funny and formidable Jewish mother. DiFalco is believably hyperactive as David, whose aggressive personality is clearly a defense mechanism. Horton portrays Ed with handsome aloofness, making no effort to redeem a character who may not actually be redeemable.
Kaufman satisfactorily stages the plays and their clashing styles (confessional minimalism in the first, bedroom expressionism in the second, dramedy realism in the third) without adding much else. Clint Ramos's costumes ground the pieces in the 1970s and early '80s, making those neon signs redundant. David Lander's finely focused lighting helps to keep Kaufman's staging in the difficult second act crystal clear. David Zinn's set conveys the multigenre nature of the piece while creating continuity in the form of a radio that follows Arnold through all three sections. While the music of Fitz Patton's sound design often seems to be emanating from that radio, this realistic delivery of the torch songs betrays a disappointing lost opportunity for live music in a play that dares its directors to dream big.
Despite an unremarkable production, Torch Song still captivates with the strength of Fierstein's writing, which feels as fresh as ever. When Arnold's mother tells him that she accepts his sexuality, but just wishes he wouldn't rub her face in it, a twinge of recognition shoots through the audience. Even after all the progress in the popular culture over the last four decades, these are conversations that continue to take place between parents and their gay children all over the world.