Review: A “Torch Song” for Today

On the one hand, Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song” can seem quite dated: it takes place from 1971 to 1982 — they use landline phones! However, what is more 2018 than a story about a gay Jewish drag queen in New York City trying to find love, hooking up with guys, struggling with a bisexual boyfriend, dealing with gay bashing, adopting a child, and fighting with his homophobic mother? In the age of same-sex marriage, Grindr, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, “Torch Song” feels more relevant than ever. After all, how different is Arnold Beckoff from Miz Cracker? The piece still works, it feels fresh and revolutionary all over again. It speaks to the gay experience powerfully and emotionally.

When this premiered in the 80s — then as a trilogy — Harvey Fierstein, also the writer, stared as Arnold; it won Tonys for Best Play and Best Actor. This time around, we are graced with Michael Urie, who despite borrowing the quintessential camp from his predecessor, has made the role entirely his own. Yes, he does the limp wrists and the accent, but it feels grounded in something personal. He is captivating, moving, and deeply enjoyable. Mr. Urie has settled into the role, and his performance has changed most since the Second Stage Off-Broadway run last Fall.

The revival, which is directed by Moises Kaufman and opened at the Helen Hayes Theater on November 1st, is a re-imagining of the piece. Mr. Fierstein has made textual cuts, transforming “Torch Song Trilogy” into “Torch Song,” a single play over three hours. Although the direction of the piece may at times seem a bit too minimal, the script edits sometimes don’t work, and the supporting cast is imperfect, none of it seems to matter because it is a joy to watch Michael Urie in this role. He is hilarious and touching, relatable and ridiculous all at the same time.

In the past year we have had revivals of “The Boys in the Band,” “Angels in America,” “Falsettos,” and now “Torch Song” has transferred to Broadway. It seems as if we are in a moment of gay revivals; something about these plays speaks to our current queer zeitgeist. But every time, the actors have to deal with the legacy of iconic performances. Without a doubt, Michael Urie lives up to legendary Harvey Fierstein and manages to surpass all expectations.

Like some of those productions, the sets by David Zinn heavily rely on neon, a trope that has become quite overdone, especially in depictions of gay New York City. But unlike those plays, something about “Torch Song” feels so intimate. There’s never more than four or five characters on stage at once, and most of the play is either monologues or intense scenes between two people.

The play goes on an emotional journey of Arnold’s life as we get to see his drag career, his romantic drama, his sex life, his parenting skills, and his tense relationship with his mother. Ma, here played by the indomitable Mercedes Ruehl, comes in and dominates the third section of the play, which is a nonstop verbal duel with Michael Urie. In the end, Ma leaves, unable to accept her son’s queerness, and we are left with Arnold, hoping he has finally found a boyfriend and a son who will love him “enough.”

Ma’s homophobia may seem old-fashioned to some, but in a world of Donald Trump, hate crimes, and trans erasure, Ma’s desire for Arnold to not make “everything about you being gay” does not feel dated. For better or for worse, “Torch Song” proves not how far we have come, but how much has stayed the same. In 2018, a play about a gay Jewish drag queen looking for love is still radical. You will start the night laughing and end the night with some tears, but it is all worth it because you will get to experience Michael Urie giving a masterful performance.

Theater Critic. Vassar College alum, current PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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