Off-Broadway Review: “Torch Song” Wobbles at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater

David Roberts

  • OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

Loneliness, the quest for authentic and meaningful love, the fear of rejection, the need for respect, and the excruciating separation from situations of abuse are not unique to members of the LGBTQ community of any decade or location and perhaps that is why audiences have responded positively to Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” since its Broadway production in 1982 at New York’s Little Theatre (the Helen Hayes). Harvey Fierstein’s adaptation at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater is titled “Torch Song:” it is staged in two acts with Arnold’s (Michael Urie) soliloquy and the original act names intact. Four hours have been trimmed down to two hours and forty minutes.

The characters and their conflicts are familiar – even more familiar than they were in the 1970s and 1980s. And the plots and subplots driven by their conflicts are even more recognizable. Scenes in The International Stud (Act I), Fugue in a Nursery (Act II), and Widows and Children First (Act III) chronicle Arnold’s yearning for love (and family), his falling in love with Ed (Ward Horton), the “straight” man who is dating Arnold and Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja) concurrently, his significant relationship with Alan (Michael Rosen), his adopted son David (Jack DiFalco), and his confrontation with his possessive mother Ma (Mercedes Ruehl). Michael Urie tenderly and authentically portrays these stages in Arnold’s quest for acceptance and meaningful relationships.

The action of the truncated trilogy is, unfortunately, uneven. In Act I, the extended phone conversation between Arnold and Ed is awkward: the dialogue seems worn and overwrought. Conversely, Mr. Horton delivers a compelling account of his suicide dream. Act II, Fugue in a Nursery, is energetic and well-directed by Moisés Kaufman. Although reminiscent of a scene in Sondheim’s “Company,” the act moves briskly and allows the actors to explore their formidable comedic skills. Sadly, the act also highlights all sorts of infidelity and chicanery too often associated with the LGBTQ community and raises an enduring and rich questions: Why do members of the LGBTQ family respond so positively (standing ovations) to theatre that portrays its members in less than affirmative qualities? Are we simply grateful to have plays that deal with LGBTQ themes?

Act III, Widows and Children First is the least satisfying. Ms. Ruehl delivers a robust Ma; unfortunately, Ma is a despicable and selfish character that Arnold should not need to include in his new understanding of elective family. The ending of the play provides less than a satisfying catharsis.

Under Mr. Kaufman’s careful direction, the members of cast deliver believable performances despite the stereotypical traits of each character. David Zinn’s sparse, elevated, and movable set is functional and appropriate. Clint Ramos’s costumes are period perfect. David Lander’s lighting adds significantly to the mood of the piece and does Fitz Patton’s sound design.

There are times when the characters border on becoming cartoons. This occurs predominantly in Act III after Ma arrives on the scene. The conversations – mostly the arguments – between Ma and Arnold reek of situation comedy. This is unfortunate, because it is in these encounters that Mr. Fierstein’s argument for Arnold’s independence and separation and individuation from his abusive mother are meant to be resolved. It is difficult to discern whether this misfortune is the result of Mr. Kaufman’s direction or Mr. Fierstein’s writing although the latter would be the better choice. The tone here is transparently Fierstein and perhaps the autobiographical nature of the piece unburdens here.

The journey to achieving Arnold’s commendable goals is a universal one as are the characters in “Torch Song.” One wishes for more relevant themes for the LGBTQ community in the first half of the twenty-first century.



“Torch Song” features Michael Urie as Arnold Beckoff and Mercedes Ruehl as Ma, as well as Jack DiFalco as David, Ward Horton as Ed, Roxanna Hope Radja as Laurel, and Michael Rosen as Alan.

“Torch Song” features scenic design by David Zinn; costume design by Clint Ramos; lighting design by David Lander; sound design by Fitz Patton; hair design by Charles G. LaPointe; make-up design by Joe Dulude II; and casting by Telsey + Company. Production photos by Joan Marcus.

“Torch Song” plays through Saturday December 9, 2017 at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater (305 West 43rd Street New York, NY 10036) on the following schedule: Tuesday at 7:00 p.m., Wednesday at 7:00 p.m., Thursday at 7:00 p.m., Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. For further information and to purchase tickets, please visit or call 212-239-6200. Running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

Photo: Michael Rosen and Michael Urie star in the revival of Harvey Fierstein's “Torch Song,” directed by Moisés Kaufman, at Second Stage Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus.