Shorter by a big word and a long act, Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy is back, trim, glittering and rechristened, simply, Torch Song. Michael Urie (Buyer & Cellar, Ugly Betty‘s Marc St. James) and Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl (The Fisher King) play nice Jewish drag queen Arnold Beckoff and his loving, if annoying, Ma – roles indelibly created in 1982 by the playwright and a pre-Golden Girls Estelle Getty. The production, which opened tonight at off-Broadway’s Second Stage (with an assist from producer Richie Jackson) is new but not exactly fresh. It builds humorously if haltingly, through performances that push too hard, until the final act’s son-mother shootout at the I’m-Not-OK Corral, which recaptures some of the fireworks of the original.
The play opens in Arnold’s dressing room, in a dive where gay men make up and perform as women, singing the heart-on-sleeve songs of lost love, betrayal and being done wrong made famous by singers like Helen Morgan and Bessie Smith that give the play its name. As Arnold applies his false eyelashes and pulls on the gown that will endow him with cleavage, he tells us about the men who pass fleetingly through his life, speaking a kind of street patois that sounds real even if it probably isn’t: “For those of yis what ain’t yet guessed, I am an entertainer, or what’s left of one,” he says. “I go by the name Virginia Ham. Ain’t that a kick in the rubber parts?” Who speaks like that? Arnold does, endearingly, but no one else in Arnold’s universe or ours.
“The International Stud,” which is Act I, featured and still features a back-room bar scene in which Arnold is taken from behind by a stranger who will have disappeared when he’s finished and before Arnold can turn around. We only see Arnold’s face and arms, jangled like a mad marionette, as he attempts to make small talk and light a cigarette.
Arnold wants love, stability, a home with a toaster, an alarm clock and kids. He thinks he’s found it with Ed (Ward Horton), a teacher he meets at the bar but takes home for sex. Ed can’t commit because he also dates women, a concept Arnold finds hilarious, and devastating. Act II, “Fugue In A Nursery” is set a year later – it’s the summer of 1975. The players are Ed and his adorably game fiancée Laurel (Roxana Hope Radja), and Arnold and his beef-cakish new boyfriend Alan.
The entire scene takes place in a country house, on a big bed as each character testifies alone or with each of the three others. “Imagine being hostess to your lover’s ex and his new boyfriend – it’s downright Noël Coward!” Laurel chirps, unnecessarily. “How’s your English accent? I think we should use English accents all weekend.” Well, not these English accents. At one point, Laurel tells Ed that in the throes of passion, he’d called her Arnold. Uh-oh. She doesn’t seem to mind. Double uh-oh.
Act III, “Widows and Children First” after the intermission, is set five years later. Arnold is dealing with tragedy and with fatherhood, having adopted David (Jack DiFalco), a street-smart, needy gay teenage boy. Ma shows up from Miami, and finally, after years of stewing, mother and son charge headlong into a torchy firestorm of their own, opening old wounds and arguing over who grieves more over a loved one’s loss.
The interplay between humor and bathos is, under Moisés Kaufman’s uneven direction, finally brought into sharp focus. Urie and Ruehl are the physical opposites of the imposing Fierstein and diminutive Getty, and so the physical humor never quite works. But the hollerfest is pungent, and it’s amazing, too: Torch Song Trilogy pre-dates AIDS; the tragedy Arnold faces is street violence that’s robbed him of love.
A gay anonymous sex scene in a downtown play was one kind of revolution; a gay anonymous sex scene in a Broadway comedy was the American, French and Russian in one fireworks package. The Trilogy ran three years on Broadway and was filmed with Fierstein, Anne Bancroft as Ma and Matthew Broderick – who’d played young David on stage – as Alan. The show appealed to the Broadway audience for the same reason Falsettos would a decade later: For all the glitter and dark-of-night transactions and revelations, in its heart and soul it’s a family values show.
Urie, so memorable in Jonathan Tolin’s tour-de-Babs Buyer and Cellar, skates across Arnold’s words; he hasn’t sunk his teeth yet into the role and it comes across as shticky. Ruehl is fiery and on top of her game even as she dismantles the stereotype of the little old Jewish lady. That’s a good thing.
I’m fairly certain that Kaufman has dispensed with one of the show’s great visual jokes (it has to do with slippers). David Zinn’s sets are accurate without being very inviting, in part because David Lander’s lighting is unsubtle. Yet keep in mind that from Torch Song, which rewarded Fierstein with Tony Awards for both his play and his performance, would emerge one of Broadway’s most astonishing creative forces, as actor (Hairspray, Fiddler on the Roof), writer (Kinky Boots, La Cage aux folles) and go-to script surgeon. One element he’s given surprisingly short shrift in this revision is that wrenching music, a much stronger element in the original. Come to think of it, that’s what’s just off-the-mark here. What’s missing isn’t the trilogy, it’s a torch.