By Donna Herman
Think about it. When Harvey Fierstein was writing Torch Song back in the late 1970’s, there was no AIDS. And it had only been a dozen years since it was legal for New York bars to serve gay and lesbian patrons. So, while a character like Arnold Beckoff (Michael Urie), a drag queen who longs for a committed, loving husband that he can acknowledge to the world, and a family of his own may seem normal to us now, back then, Fierstein was writing science fiction.
The Torch Song that is currently rocking the Hayes Theater on Broadway is an edited version of Fierstein’s earlier compilation of his 3 plays International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery and Widows and Children First. Which he had cut down into Torch Song Trilogy, a 3-act play in 1981, and which garnered him a slew of awards including two Tony’s. One for Best Play and one for Best Actor. Fierstein and his signature gravelly voice and stature has become so synonymous with the role of Arnold – playing him in the 1988 movie version as well – that there hasn’t been a NYC production of Torch Song since the original.
Because Torch Song is really all about Arnold. And if you don’t have a strong, charismatic, vulnerable, glorious Arnold, well really, what’s the point? Luckily, Michael Urie is all that and more. Physically, he’s nothing like Fierstein, which is a good thing. If they had tried to cast a clone, it would have been impossible not to constantly compare the two. Urie makes the role his own from the opening monologue where he lays out Arnold’s wishes, hopes and dreams in a self-deprecating but unapologetically honest but guarded manor, to the last scene where he is a vulnerable wreck. And Urie alone is worth the price of admission.
Although he’s a drag queen, Arnold is a romantic. And he is looking for love in all the wrong places. In the first act clearly labelled 1971, his journey starts in a seedy “back room” bar where he meets the handsome but closeted bisexual Ed (Ward Horton). The second act sees him and a new boyfriend Alan (Michael Hsu Rosen) visiting his “ex” Ed and Ed’s wife Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja) in their upstate country home in 1974. In the third act, we are in 1980, in Arnold’s apartment in New York. Nobody is in a romantic relationship, and Arnold’s mother, Mrs. Beckoff (Mercedes Ruehl) comes to town. Let the fireworks begin. Arnold and his mother are so clearly alike, it is no wonder they can’t get along.
At one point in Torch Song Ed tells Arnold he doesn’t understand women. Apparently both gay and straight men have something in common. The character of Laurel is not very realistically drawn, and two dimensional at best. Roxanna Hope Radja does her best with this not very believable character. Which also proves that mothers are not seen as women, because the character of Arnold’s mother is spot on and portrayed perfectly by Mercedes Ruehl. Every inflection, every look, every sniff, is straight out of the Jewish mother’s playbook. The perfect blending of blame and affection. If I hadn’t known before I went into the theater that it was Mercedes Ruehl, I never would have thought it was her.
Ward Horton is well cast as the uptight and confused Ed, as is Michael Hsu Rosen as the young model Alan. Unfortunately, Jack DiFalco is miscast as the 15-year-old David, he’s too old for the part and it’s jarring. What always kept me in the moment were Clint Ramos’ period perfect costumes. Took me right back to my glory days – now don’t start counting boys and girls, it’s rude!
Torch Song by Harvey Fierstein, Directed by Moises Kaufman
WITH: Michael Urie (Arnold); Ward Horton (Ed); Roxanna Hope Radja (Laurel); Michael Hsu Rosen (Alan); Jack DiFalco (David); Mercedes Ruehl (Mrs. Beckoff)
Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by Clint Ramos; Lighting Design by David Lander; Sound Design by John Gromada; Hair/Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe; Make-Up Design by Joe Delude II; Production Stage Manager, Frank Lombardi; Stage Manager, Ben Freedman; Casting, Telsey + Company; Associate Producer, Keith Hallworth; Production Manager, Bethany Weinstein Stewart; Executive Producer, Red Awning/Nicole Kastrinos; General Manager, RCI Theatricals. Presented by Second Stage Theater at the Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, NYC. For tickets call 212-239-6200. Or visit the Hayes Box Office: Mon 10-6; Tue 10-8; Sun Noon-6. Or online at: www.telecharge.com/Broadway/Torch-Song/