In “Torch Song” Return, Fierstein Lights Beautiful Gay Flame

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Mercedes Ruehl and Michael Urie in Torch Song. Photo: Joan Marcus

When Harvey Fierstein (not to be confused, if you please, with Harvey Weinstein) began on his path to the prominent position he now holds in the American theater and, perhaps, in the wider public, he was an actor, among other things, under Ellen Stewart’s stewardship during the salad days of La Mama, the legendary Off-Off-Broadway theater. For example, in Andy Warhol’s only play, Pork, Fierstein portrayed an asthmatic lesbian; you can bet that his familiar voice (though it wasn’t familiar then) had plenty to do with landing the role. Perhaps Warhol even shaped the part for him.

Undoubtedly, it was Fierstein’s commitment to La Mama that led him writing and then presenting his autobiographical plays there. His 1977 one-act International Stud, for example, had an opening monologue in which a man (the voluble Fierstein, of course) is bent over in a spotlight while being penetrated in the back room of a backroom bar by a unseen top.

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It happened that I, writing for The Village Voice, was assigned the review International Stud and gave the playwright-actor a notice that was a rave.

Well, who wouldn’t have responded that way? Here was an actor I’d never watched before — never listened to his gravelly delivery — performing an act about performing what many people, particularly in 1977, would have considered to be an obscene act. It had to be an on-stage first. Fierstein’s character was named Arnold Beckoff, and Fierstein was tossing his character’s activity off as casually as if sitting down to — well, bending over to — a nice breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast.

Fierstein was bold, brazen, human, utterly real and hilarious. Still, would I, or anyone else, have predicted that a star was born? No: not when the openly homosexual, arguably less-than-dreamboat, voice-like-a-Hudson-tugboat Fierstein was at work.

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Fierstein was not ready to stop mining his life for blatantly autobiographical offerings, but here I may be having a memory lapse. I recall International Stud (named after an actual Greenwich Village backroom bar), which is set in 1971, as consisting only of the backroom monologue. I seem to have forgotten that there was another segment in which Arnold sits at a vanity table preparing for his drag act, which is followed but a monologue from bisexual Ed Reese who meets and falls for Arnold, which becomes a rocky romance.

Seemingly still recording his life, Fierstein next turned that relationship into a second play: Fugue in a Nursery, set in 1974. Arnold partners up with the much younger David, and Ed marries up with Laurel, and suddenly they’re tangled foursome lobbing agitated lines and pairing off suggestively on a large bed that could pass, according to Fierstein’s satirical purposes, for a playpen.

Fierstein followed that farrago with Widows and Children First, dated 1980. Composed like a sitcom, now Arnold keeps house with a 15-year-old foster kid, David. On this day we also find Ed in the house, who’s separated from Laurel, and we discover Arnold’s interfering Ma, who sets off a series of domestic fireworks. Ma and Arnold reeling from the complexities of conflicted familial love.

These three plays soon become so acclaimed that they opened in 1982 as Torch Song Trilogy at Broadway’s Little Theatre and stayed around for 1,222 performances. And now, 35 years later, the play is revived Off-Broadway at Second Stage. Well, it’s just Torch Song now, but it’s a first-rate affair under Moisés Kaufman’s typically sensitive and forthright direction.

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Why, you may wonder, is the idea of trilogy a tragedy? The only seeming explanation is that while International Stud and Fugue in a Nursery comprise the lively first act, while Widows and Children First is the second act. (The titles are hung in neon on David Zinn’s various sets. Yes, we seem to have an aversion to three-act plays these days, whatever the significance of that may be.

Actually, here, it’s no significant matter. What is truly significant is that Michael Urie, who’s turned himself into one of Manhattans’ busiest actors, has inherited Fierstein’s five-dimensional role and is wonderful in it. It’s as if he’s inhabited by a whirling dervish aching to escape, a bundle of worried nerves. He cedes the stage only intermittently and he never runs out of charismatic energy.

Lending great support is Mercedes Ruehl’s Ma, a woman dismayed by Arnold’s homosexuality but truly attempting to adjust to it. She gets some of Fierstein’s best laugh lines and nails every one. Ward Horton, as Ed, doesn’t miss any of the poor man’s ambivalence about where his sexual inclinations really lie. Roxanna Hope Radja, as the constantly flummoxed Laurel; Michael Rosen, as the looks-great-in-tights young Alan; and Jack DiFalco, though looking older than 15-going-on-16 as David, pull their weight commendably.

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The question arises as to how Torch Song, in 2017, holds up.All three plays predate the age of AIDS, and so while the temptation is to regard them as dated, audience members need to remind themselves that the Torch Song events occurred before things in the gay world changed radically. With AIDS now a chronic condition for the most part more than an automatic death sentence, Fierstein’s views, and the plays that contains them, remain at once viable and vivid.

As director, Kaufman — presumably with Fierstein’s blessing — shuffles scenes around. Unless my memory is truly failing me (and I don’t believe it is), International Stud began with the startling Arnold-bent-over image. It doesn’t now. It starts with Arnold getting his drag on. Did someone think the original kick-off would no longer pack some shock? I say, regarding that choice, something has been lost. But nonetheless, with Torch Song back on the boards, it’s a great idea to go. Fierstein’s fiercely, funnily honest writing remains simply paramount. He is a theatrical wonder. So is his play.