In the exquisite new Broadway revival of Torch Song now open at New York’s Hayes Theater, Michael Urie establishes himself as a fearless and compelling leading man — delivering a master-class in physical comedy and dramatic authenticity that, in the play’s most gripping scenes, brings laughter and tears nearly simultaneously.
That’s not an easy feat, especially considering how closely associated Torch Song is with its writer and original star, Harvey Fierstein. When the play premiered on Broadway in 1982 as Torch Song Trilogy, Fierstein had spent years performing its three parts — “The International Stud,” “Fugue in a Nursery,” and “Widows and Children First!” — separately around town, building a name for himself along the way as the witty, raspy, boundary-pushing personality fans have come to know and love.
Packaged together, critics and mainstream audiences praised the play for Fierstein’s unapologetic look at gay life in the 1970s, told through the eyes of neurotic, forlorn drag performer Arnold Beckoff as he navigates his way through battles with fickle lovers, a judgmental mother, and his own self-esteem. The show ran for nearly three years, won Fierstein Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actor, and was later adapted into a 1988 film.
It was only last year when Fierstein decided to dust off Torch Song, with a 35th anniversary production that premiered Off Broadway at the Second Stage Theater. He trimmed down some of the text, shaved an hour off its running time, shaped it into a two-act, and handed Arnold’s shoes over to Urie.
Some of those cuts (like Arnold’s meatier monologues) are missed, though Torch Song‘s flame still burns bright. This fresh production, skillfully directed by Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project) and transferred here a year later, shows that Fierstein’s words are as poignant now as they were then. It’s as if the piece was written now, looking ahead rather than then, looking back.
While Fierstein’s presence in this Torch Song still carries in his words, Urie’s undeniable charisma (and own unique vocal inflection) allows the show to restart on its own. He’s supported by a strong supporting cast, all carried over from Off Broadway. Among them is the steady Ward Horton as Ed, Arnold’s All-American, handsome bisexual lover whom he just can’t seem to quit; the bright Roxanna Hope Radja, as Ed’s accepting girlfriend Laurel; Michael Hsu Rosen, hilarious as Arnold’s delightful dim — and scantily clad — boyfriend Alan; and the Jack DiFalco, who infuses a burst of energy into Arnold’s adoptive gay son, David.
Urie’s most formidable of stage partners doesn’t arrive until the show’s second act when Mercedes Ruehl steps onto the set as Arnold’s uncompromising, overbearing mother. The Oscar- and Tony-winning actress plays well with the jokes and really shows off her skills when she’s sparring with Urie in the play’s meatiest debate, over the conditions her character has seemed to place on her unconditional love.
That’s when Torch Song really seems to catch fire. Arnold wants his mother’s total acceptance. She’s willing to tolerate but not validate his homosexuality. Their moments together are as bold as the neon lights shining on David Zinn’s set, and it’s impossible not to feel that same electricity in the theater. With the stakes high, Ruehl flexes Mrs. Beckoff’s acid-sharp tongue and unnerving determination with ease. Urie makes sure Arnold meets her beat for beat, stripping away his sass to show that apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
More than just an illumination onto incredible acting, these final scenes end Torch Song on a bittersweet note that helps ground this dramedy in reality. Arnold, smartly, isn’t perfect — “You cheated me out of your life and then blamed me for not being there,” Ruehl’s character says at one point, exposing her son’s biggest flaw in all of his relationships — but as the play ends, he’s found peace in his journey by maintaining a hope that everything will be alright. And it’s hard not to feel the same way about life when leaving the theater. A-