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Until Harvey Fierstein changed the tenor of queer theatre in 1982 with the Broadway debut of his Torch Song Trilogy, gay figures in media typically came in three flavors: depressed, bitter, and suicidal.
Arnold Beckoff was different. The main character of Fierstein’s three-act play (originally played by the playwright himself) heralded a very different LGBTQ trope onto centerstage: the drag queen with a heart of gold. Sassy, transcendent, indifferent, defiant, needy, lonely, mothering, perspicacious, and tough, Arnold was one of the first fully-rendered gay human beings that mainstream America would acknowledge as such. (The play’s film version, which cut the drama down to two hours from a jam-packed four, earned wide critical praise and made a modest $4.86 million at the box office in 1988.)
The return of Fierstein’s play to Broadway after 36 years must compete in an America whose tastes for queer representation have presumably evolved past the fatalistic melodramas of yesteryear. Sharply edited into a bitesized version of its former self, Torch Song earns each moment of its 2-hour-and-40-minute runtime through sheer moxie.
Directed by Moisés Kaufman, Michael Urie’s version of Arnold succeeds without mimicking the beats of Fierstein’s laudatory original performance. Urie manages to portray the role with a sublimated frenetic energy that, if ever unleashed, could bulldoze through Arnold’s fragile construction of strength. What could have been an unwieldy performance of anxiety is smooth like butter. Urie silos Arnold’s inner turmoil into telling acts of hyperbole and histrionics, revealing how many queer people must transmute their pain into humor if they want to survive a world of unrelenting prejudice.
And while Arnold may be a drag queen crippled by loneliness, he knows his own worth. He laughs through the tears incurred from a decades-long affair with Ed (Ward Horton), a Brooklyn educator with model looks and a chip on his pristine bisexual shoulder. Through the years, the couple mitigates their relationship through the impossibly understanding love of ancillary paramours. Ed eventually marries a woman named Laurel (a cheerful but love-starved Roxanna Hope Radja) to appease his conservative farmer parents, while Arnold subsequently attaches himself to a young model named Alan (a scantily clad Michael Hsu Rosen) in a halfhearted riposte against his ex that eventually blooms into real love shortly before it’s snatched away by a homophobic attack.
Arguably the most famous part of the play is its beginning, a breathtakingly melancholy 10-minute monologue on love. Fierstein’s original interpretation of the soliloquy quickly established his character as someone who has sacrificed passion in favor of a hard-won balance in his life. Urie’s performance is more middling, but in a good way. His Arnold appears much more unsure of what he wants; he’s caught between the indulgent cruising grounds of New York’s back bars, where sex is readily available, and the heartwarming security that a nuclear family might provide him. As the show progresses, he experiments with the former and serendipitously bumps into a pathway to the latter.
Understanding Torch Song as a love story between Arnold and Ed would be a disservice to Fierstein’s complex narrative. The true brilliance of the play lies in its ability to sap dramatic tension from the places you most expect it. A man is cheating on his girlfriend with his male lover’s boyfriend?! The play’s characters barely blink an eye. Instead of being roiled by this queer love triangle, they respond to it with compassion and accommodation. Implicit throughout the show is an understanding that love is messy — worse yet when you are contending with society’s expectations of conventional, heterosexual marriage.
“You were wrong to do what you did,” Arnold explains to Alan as he tries to suss out the situation. “Though I know why you did. And Ed was wrong to do what he did. Though I know why he did. And Laurel was wrong to use what you two did. Though I know why she did. And I was wrong to do everything I did. But I did. I don’t know. If two wrongs don’t make a right, maybe four do.” A social outcast, Arnold knows when to pick his battles. A lover’s confusion over his sexual identity is not a hill worth dying on.In a play about queer people hungering for love, romantic folly is only a small speed bump on the way to a relationship.
True conflict only comes in the show’s third act when Arnold’s mother (a superb and spitfire Mercedes Ruehl) visits from Florida in the show’s final act, “Widows and Children First.” This section is set in June 1980, years after the first two acts, which take place in the ’70s. Still mourning from the offstage murder of Alan, Arnold nevertheless proceeds to foster David (Jack DiFalco), a gay teenager whose parents rejected him because of his sexuality. The two consciously fall into the tropes of a heteronormative family: David plays the mischievous-but-loving son while Arnold is the strict-yet-doting mother.
This gentle balance is undone by Mrs. Beckoff, Arnold’s mother, who knows nothing of David, let alone the true nature of Alan’s death. Her arrival pits Arnold’s constructed reality against the prejudices of a mainstream society that still expects homosexuals to live in the closet. Accordingly, Mrs. Beckoff cannot accept the facsimile of heteronormative life that her son has created with David and Ed, who reenters the picture after separating from Laurel. Soon, Arnold and his mother come to blows over how society undervalues gay love vis-à-vis straight love. Arnold compares the loss of his lover to the death of his father; Mrs. Beckoff, widowed after a decades-long marriage, finds this reprehensible, because deep down, she still sees her son’s sexuality as a sin. The tragic irony here comes from the fact that Arnold has modeled his entire life on hers.
Denouement is melancholy. Arnold makes amends with his mother, but their relationship is barely healed when she slips out of the apartment — and possibly out of his life for good. Arnold has found an untraditional path to love. Ed is back in his life for the foreseeable future; David is a loyal son; but his mother’s exit opens a mortal wound. And as “I Will Never Turn My Back on You” by Big Maybelle plays on the radio, Arnold begins to cry in ecstasy for his future and grief for his past.
Torch Song continues for a strictly limited engagement through March 24 at the Hayes Theater on Broadway (240 West 44th Street, Times Square, Manhattan).