While superficially poignant, Torch Song remains what it always was: a fierce play about the need for respect as a gay person, when it was painfully more difficult to come by acceptance, let alone respect. And to that extent, it may seem like a dated work, wedded to when it premiered as three one-act plays that were then put together as one, more than three decades ago. It’s still just as moving and tear-provoking as it comes to focus on a gay man whose mother (“the Sylvia Sydney of Brighton Beach”) has to cope with his adopting a young son. With the marvelous Urie and the always-superb Mercedes Ruehl as the mother, how could anything go wrong? Nothing does.
The period of the play is evoked by the disco music that greets us (in Fitz Patton’s sound design) as we take our seats. Set in 1974, the first part is called “The International Stud,” which is also the name of a real gay bar in the 1970’s where Arnold performs his drag act. (It’s seeing Arnold’s act that’s been eliminated from the “…Trilogy,” to the briefer and just plain Torch Song.) We first meet him as he’s “emasculating this eye” and getting into character as “Virginia Ham.”
According to Arnold, “analysis” is “a great way to keep from boring your friends.” He’s basically self-analyzing himself during his opening monologue, as he speaks directly to us, telling us about his “attraction to a class of men most diplomatically described as old and ugly,” which hardly prepares us for the first attractive one we meet, named Ed (Ward Horton). Ed also delivers essentially a monologue, when he meets (the offstage) Arnold at the bar.
When Arnold is back on-stage, accompanying Ed for some back-room shenanigans in the dark (the very evocative lighting design is by David Lander), Michael Urie is at his most magical as he charades lighting a cigarette and then jiggles as Arnold is ostensibly being molested from the rear by a person he doesn’t even see. Urie also, throughout, conveys everything Arnold feels with his priceless facial expressions.
The relationship they build comes to an end half a year later, because of Ed’s newer relationship with Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja), which Arnold refers to as “this sudden burst of heterosexuality.” The second part of the play, “Fugue in a Nursery,” finds Arnold and his new partner Alan (Michael Rosen), visiting Ed and Laurel at their country home for the weekend. “Imagine being hostess to your lover’s ex and his new boyfriend,” says Laurel. “It’s downright Noel Coward.”
It’s Fierstein’s lines, rather than the story’s circumstances, that make Torch Song so drop-dead funny. Some of the funniest are Arnold’s discourse with his best friend Murray, who we never even meet, but who Arnold frequently calls on the phone to report what’s currently happening or what’s about to occur. And the play particularly comes alive in the third part, “Widows & Children First!”–here presented as Act II, following an intermission–when Arnold’s mother comes up from Florida to stay with him and with what appears to be his latest boyfriend, David (Jack DiFalco).
Be sure to observe Mercedes Ruehl’s gestures when she puts her hands on her head as Arnold’s mother says, “You think that’s what we brought you into the world for [to be gay]? Believe me, if I’d known I wouldn’t have bothered.” Horton is surprisingly compelling as Ed, who should be more of a villain for leaving Arnold. Rosen is, like Alan, who’s a model, gorgeous and very sure of himself, and DiFalco’s spot-on as the young if confident David.
They all play out on David Zinn’s busy set designs, which rely on moving platforms for the first part, a fanciful enormous bed for the second, and finally a very realistic New York apartment. The suitable costumes are by Clint Ramos.
Torch Song is every bit as effective as Torch Song Trilogy was so many years ago, when it was a brand new play with a punch. It’s been directed with a surefire hand by Moisés Kaufman, who, typically, knows what he’s doing, as he shuffles his cast on the stage with winning results. He also turns it into a play that shines as if it were new.
Torch Song (extended through December 9, 2017)
The Second Stage
Tony Kiser Theater, 305 W. 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-246-4422 or visit http://www.2st.com
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission