Review of Torch Song starring Michael Urie and Mercedes Ruehl at Tony Kiser Theater

  • Our critic's rating:
    November 8, 2017
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    Having discovered my passion for theatre with considerable tardiness in my lifetime, my bucket list of missed productions from years gone by is quite a lengthy one. Of course, there are plenty of hazy videos to be found online, and the odd Hollywood movie adaptation at the other end of the spectrum, but, oh, to have had that opportunity to see those productions in person. Well, if you wait long enough, one by one they each get revived and are scribbled off said bucket list. This scenario certainly applies to Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy. The collection of three plays - first presented together in 1981 – worked its way unapologetically to the Little Theatre on Broadway (now The Hayes Theater, soon to be re-opened by Second Stage Theater) in 1982 and was ultimately awarded the Tony for “Best Play”.

    Fast forward 35 years and thanks to Second Stage, Fierstein’s seminal piece on gay culture post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS-epidemic is being revived for a new generation of theatregoers, whilst honoring those in the audience fortunate enough to have experienced the play the first time around. Under the direction of Moisés Kaufman, this 2ST version has dropped the “trilogy” from its title and has cut down the original 4-hour length to a ‘mere’ 2 hours and 40 minutes. The titles of the three acts - International StudFugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First! – remain and are displayed proudly with vintage neon lighting. The motif is the aesthetic link that binds three different styles of playwriting. International Stud is mostly told through monologues by our protagonist Arnold Beckoff (a Jewish drag queen, confident in his persona and crushingly vulnerable in his search for love) and Ed (a bisexual teacher, on a never-ending quest to find himself). Michael Urie steps into Fierstein’s Tony-winning shoes as Arnold and pulls off the enormous feat of re-imagining the character with nuanced intensity, comic physicality and a sniff of Snagglepuss-influence in his affected speech patterns. Ward Horton, on the other hand, plays the ‘straight’ man with just the right amount of sensibility to keep us interested in Ed. The unconventionality of their on-off relationship, Arnold’s deepest desires and Ed’s discomfort with his sexuality are set firmly in motion and we are led swiftly into the second act. Fugue in a Nursery – with the additions of Roxanna Hope Radja as Ed’s wife Laurel and Michael Rosen as Alan, Arnold’s new, young lover – is played out in an enormous bed and is set a few years later. All the conversations take place under or on top of the sheets with those not present, lying motionless next to those that are. Ms. Radja does an excellent job with the difficult role of Laurel, balancing enthusiasm with wariness. She must be pleasant, likeable and offer no hint of bitterness in the face of the inevitable that she is ultimately not enough for her bisexual partner. Kudos to Radja! Mr. Rosen also rises to the occasion, albeit in perhaps a simpler role as the pretty, young hustler-turned-model Alan. He does, however, add depth to the character and sets Alan up as a conceivable alternative for Arnold. After the underlying tensions of the two couples are exposed both in and out of the bedroom, the lights go out for intermission.

    The third act is both the most powerful and the most conventional. Enter a 15-year old gay, foster kid named David (a confident portrayal by Jack DiFalco) and the eagerly anticipated arrival of Mercedes Ruehl as Ma Beckoff. It is now 1980 and we learn that a tragedy has separated Alan and Arnold and Ed’s troubled marriage with Laurel is also on hiatus. Ma is coming to stay at Arnold’s apartment, carrying a suitcase that may as well be filled to the brim with fireworks about to go off at any moment. Widows and Children First! is acted with such raw emotion by Mr. Urie and Ms. Ruehl, you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. Despite their generational differences with regard to prejudice and homosexuality, it is striking how similar mother and son actually are and how this causes them to butt heads. Each has an acid-tipped tongue ready to lash out at the other, whilst at the same time, each loves the other unconditionally. It is a tug-of-war of emotions played out by two incredibly gifted stage actors that steals the entire show.

    This Torch Song burns bright in the current Off-Broadway scene and I, for one, would not be surprised to see an equally bright future for this production after its limited run at the Tony Kiser Theater. For those who may are skeptical about messing with the classics – worry not! The torch has been passed from Fierstein to Urie’s hand with great respect, sensitivity and accomplishment.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    What the popular press says...

    "This latest incarnation of “Torch Song,” directed by Moisés Kaufman, finds an irresistibly compelling gravity beneath the glibness. Best known for staging lyrical but earnest topical dramas, Mr. Kaufman turns out to be just the man for eliciting the sting within the soap bubbles of “Torch Song.”"
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "It’s been almost 35 years since Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” won a best play Tony Award. Now, in its Off-Broadway revival at Second Stage, this pioneering but patchy comedy-drama of gay life and love — as seen through the mascara-caked eyes of Jewish drag (and drama) queen Arnold Beckoff — still draws laughs and tears."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "For gay history to stay alive, torches must be passed. So it is with Second Stage Theatre’s welcome and well-assembled revival of Harvey Fierstein’s plangently funny and touching play."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "While Urie's strained vocals grow wearing, turning his occasional throwaway lines into welcome bursts of oxygen, the actor's resourceful physical-comedy skills provide more consistent pleasure. But only in the play's superior final act, when he's matched with a comparably outsize scene partner in Mercedes Ruehl as Arnold's archetypal Jewish mother — swooping in from Florida in an orchid-pink traveling suit, a lacquered bouffant and a Miami Beach cancer tan — does he dig into the pathos, anger and desperate longing of this complicated character."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "In “Torch Song,” an affectionate if ill-considered revival of Harvey Fierstein's “Torch Song Trilogy,” Michael Urie makes a brave but bizarre effort to channel the playwright’s own groundbreaking star performance as a lovelorn drag queen in Manhattan’s 1970s gay society."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - Time Out - Hollywood Reporter - Variety