The Gay Radicalism of ‘Torch Song’ Begins and Ends at Home
A new version of Harvey Fierstein’s late 1970s play stars Michael Urie as wisecracking drag queen Arnold Beckoff, confronting the meaning of love and a fearsome mother.
Thank you, Mercedes Ruehl. Before the entry of her both hilarious and hurtful mother in Torch Song, it can feel—as witty as many of Harvey Fierstein’s crisply written zingers are—that you are enduring a series of extended confessionals.
The 2016 play, adapted by Fierstein from Torch Song Trilogy—shaving 40 minutes off the original—sees a drag queen, Arnold Beckoff (Michael Urie), fight to live, love, angst, and wisecrack as he wishes.
In its early stages it feels static, a series of monologues, with characters voicing things for themselves rather than contributing to an active piece of theater. We hear of things happening, we don’t see them, and that distancing distances us. When Ma and her suitcase enter in the play’s final furlong, dispensing sharp asides, indiscriminate finger wagging, and awful, homophobic judgment, the play begins—almost too late.
It is almost 40 years since The International Stud, the first part of Torch Song Trilogy, premiered at La MaMa in the East Village. Fugue in a Nursery and Widows and Children First! followed (in this production they are announced in neon above the stage), with the first Broadway production of the play in 1982.
If you have not seen the stage production, you may have seen the 1988 movie, starring Fierstein and Matthew Broderick, with Anne Bancroft as Ma.
That 40 years is a grand sweep of LGBT history, and it is impossible not to think of the rises and falls, victories and tragedies, and shifts in politics, culture, and identity that have taken place since as you watch it. All three of its component parts predate AIDS, and the busting open of famous closets and expansion of sexual and gender identities. It predates significant LGBT equality gains, yet pride and the determination to assert one’s own strong gay self is at its core.
It also predates the grim new era of pushback and repression many LGBT people presently find themselves in internationally, and in this Torch Song Trilogy’s radicalism is stoutly embedded, hidden beneath the eyelash extensions and Arnold’s famous bunny slippers.
This is not a play that features a nice, hot, glossy magazine sexy gay couple, or photogenic teen struggling to find himself. As its central character, Arnold demands nothing less than equality, in defiance of the hatred that robs him of one love and the discrimination and prejudice that would deny him the right to express his love as a partner and father. That was a radical assertion in the late 1970s. Sadly, it remains so today.
In its first two parts, Moisés Kaufman stages this Second Stage Theater production on a collection of raised platforms to signal Arnold’s dressing room, the bar of the International Stud, its backroom for hookups in the dark, and his apartment.
Scrub your mind of Fierstein’s Arnold, if only because Urie does not possess his astonishing, gravelly voice. Urie’s Arnold is more conventionally neurotic, his body in constant windmilling motion, his voice always kvetching, his eyes always rolling.
His first words to us are: “I think my biggest problem is being young and beautiful. It’s my biggest problem because I have never been young and beautiful. Oh, I’ve been beautiful. And Lawd knows I’ve been young. But never the twain have met.”
It keeps coming, a machine gun of superior camp snark: “An ugly person who goes after a pretty person gets nothing but trouble. But a pretty person who goes after an ugly person gets at least cab fare.”
Into Arnold’s life comes Ed (Ward Horton), who is bisexual. Ed is a strange piece of grit in Arnold’s life. In this production we don’t see what the attraction is between them, because from the first moment they meet in the bar (which we don’t see), they are querying what the other says and that sets the tone for their relationship.
On stage Arnold is known as Virginia Ham (his previous stage names: Kitty Litter, Bertha Venation, Bang Bang LaDesh), but—unlike the film—we don’t see him perform. We mostly see the costume off, not on, and he is panicked from the get-go about Ed, who, six months in, is not really committed to their relationship. He has a girlfriend, Laurel. “Look, Ed,” Arnold says, sensing the relationship slipping away, “I don’t know much about heterosexuals, but I do know that when a guy takes a gal to meet his folks, for the weekend no less, this is no longer casual dating.”
An unmoored Arnold heads into the backroom of International Stud; and suddenly this quiet kind of place studded with muffled sounds and groans is host to Arnold’s prattling commentary to his unseen compadre Murray about love, sex, and… and then he gets into the spirit of the place.
But anonymous sex isn’t Arnold’s thing, even if he gives it his most valiant best. Ed is enough for Arnold, Arnold concludes—and, at its heart, the play bravely parses why “enough” in a relationship can be the wisest choice to be made, above the hearts, flowers, and passion that we think it should comprise.
The problem with that “enough” is Ed, and what is a rather taste-free cracker of a role. He is not hateful, he is not, gorgeous body aside, really that desirable; mostly you wonder, on the evidence presented, why Arnold wants him so much. Both Arnold and Laurel (distinctively played by Roxanna Hope Radja) are so much sharper and more interesting than this man they have ended up with. In this production of Torch Song, both Radja and Ruehl ensure that the women stand out.
‘They killed him out there on the street’
In the second part of the play, Alan (Michael Rosen), Arnold’s hot model boyfriend, goes with him upstate to stay at Ed and Laurel’s place.
The design for this section is a ginormous stage-spanning bed, with all four characters popping in and out of the covers, as the clashing truths of love and romance are revealed. It looks like a mad bedroom farce, but is anything but.
Torch Song, unlike many gay-themed dramas, is less concerned with sex, as it is with romance and forming a relationship. It is not anti-passion, but Fierstein is more focused on how gay people can make homes and fulfilling family lives.
Ed thinks Arnold’s vision of a family life is a fantasy; the one he imagines with Laurel is natural because it is heterosexual. His self-hatred is vocalized, but not really worked through enough to be resolved.
To Arnold, such wishes for the future are possibilities. “None of it impossible. I have a ledger where I write things like that down. And when I get something on the list I put a checkmark next to it. I must have a dozen pages filled with my possibilities. And you’d be surprised how many check-marks there are too.”
The last part of the trilogy interrogates those check-marks, and their real-life consequences. It is set five years later, 1980, in Arnold’s apartment. It is a warmly cluttered home, with his “possibilities” realized. He is fostering a gay teen, David (Jack DiFalco), who he may adopt. Ed is still present, and beginning to realize that he wants to be with Arnold.
But there is also Ma, and it is her battles with Arnold—her vicious homophobia, and the vicious homophobia she immediately regrets; and a lifetime of hurt and love the two share—that form the ballast of the wonderful post-intermission slice of Torch Song. Ruehl is marvelous, and helps make Urie’s performance more textured. Sometimes they occupy, prizefighter style, the two ends of the stage. Arnold shields his head, curls up, to avoid her relentless verbal fusillade.
Alan is dead, a queerbashing, and something that Ma cannot, will not, get her head around until her son graphically spells out what happened and its effects on him. As with Ed, we don’t see the depth of Alan and Arnold’s relationship on stage, but Arnold powerfully connects, in frustration and anger, his mother’s homophobia with the homophobia that killed Alan: “They killed him out there on the street. Twenty-three years old, laying dead on the street... his head bashed in by a bunch of kids with baseball bats. Killed by children. Children taught by people like you. ’Cause everybody knows that queers don’t matter. Queers don’t love. And those that do get what they deserve!”
Here is a camp, out, gay man remaining true to himself, true to what and who he wants in his life, and damn what anyone else says—beloved, guilt-tripping mother included. It is Arnold who tells David about who Oscar Wilde was, and it is Ma who wishes he wouldn’t (“You shove your sex life down my throat like aspirin every hour on the hour”). She would rather Arnold stay silent, inert. But she also knows he cannot be that, and she knows she has failed him.
After the explosion comes a qualified peace, and qualified understanding, and an embrace of all that is imperfect in Arnold’s life that he nevertheless treasures—his relationships with Ma and Ed, and where he has ended up. The very personal is very political for Arnold. All the placards he waves, as far as we know, are done on the home front.
Arnold demands and expects respect, and staying true to that leads him to his very individual happy ending. How will Ed and Arnold work out? Maybe OK, maybe really quite fine, but we do not leave them implausibly blissful. What would HIV and AIDS do to them and the ones they know? We don’t know: ghost questions that hover through the real-life prism of retrospect.
The last we see of Arnold, he is clutching an object from each person who is important to him, and his happiness is piercing because it has taken—like the best kind of LGBTQ activism—true bravery and imagination to achieve. This is his “enough.”
Torch Song is at Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd St., NYC. Book tickets through Dec. 3 here.