Chief New York 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 currently running at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater is titled “Torch Song:” it is staged in two acts with Arnold’s (an emotive and transparent Michael Urie) soliloquy and the original act names intact. Four hours have been trimmed down to two hours and forty-five 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 (a vulnerable and unnerved Ward Horton), the “straight” man who is dating Arnold and Laurel (an astute and strong Roxanna Hope Radja) concurrently, his significant relationship with Alan (an ebullient and confident Michael Hsu Rosen), his adopted son David (a deeply sensitive and trusting Jack DiFalco), and his confrontation with his possessive mother Mrs. Beckoff (a possessive and disquieting 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 spans Arnold’s years in New York City from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. 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/attempt. Act II, Fugue in a Nursery, is energetic and well-directed by Moisés Kaufman. 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 or should we expect more?
Act III, Widows and Children First is uneven. Ms. Ruehl delivers a robust Mrs. Beckoff; unfortunately, Arnold’s mother is a despicable and selfish character that Arnold should not need to include in his new understanding of elective family. The highlights of this Act are the deeply moving and authentically performed scenes between Arnold and David and Jack. Michael Urie, Jack DiFalco, and Ward Horton bring exuberant hopefulness and genuine affection to their characters and successfully define Harvey Fierstein’s vision of the “new American family.” The ending of the play, despite Arnold’s pressing all that sustains (and challenges) him against his chest, 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 John Gromada’s sound design.
There are times when the characters border on situation comedy stock figures. This occurs predominantly in Act III after Mrs. Beckoff arrives on the scene. The conversations – mostly the arguments – between Mrs. Beckoff 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 most likely 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 hopes and dreams of the characters in “Torch Song.” One wishes for even 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 Mrs. Beckoff, as well as Jack DiFalco as David, Ward Horton as Ed, Roxanna Hope Radja as Laurel, and Michael Hsu Rosen as Alan.
“Torch Song” features scenic design by David Zinn; costume design by Clint Ramos; lighting design by David Lander; sound design by John Gromada; 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 at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater (240 West 44th Street) on the following schedule: Tuesday at 7:00 p.m., Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Thursday at 7:00 p.m., Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. For further information and to purchase tickets, please visit https://torchsongbroadway.com/ or call 212-239-6200. Running time is 2 hours and 45 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
Photo: Michael Urie and Jack DiFalco in the revival of “Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song,” directed by Moisés Kaufman, at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater. Credit: Matthew Murphy.