Actor Michael Urie presents a nearly impossible task in the opening monologue of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song, which opened on Broadway last week at The Helen Hayes Theater. How can the rest of the play be as brilliantly honest, vulnerable, funny and poignant than those first few moments with Arnold Beckoff?
Mr. Urie is equal parts flair, flamboyant and fractured, portraying a New York City drag queen struggling to overcome his deep-seated loneliness and feelings of inadequacy. Arnold is looking for “The International Stud” (emblazoned in neon as part of David Zinn’s effective, cinematic set design) but one that’s in for the long haul. He confesses, “Not once has someone said, ‘Arnold, I love you’, that I could believe. So I ask myself, ‘Do you really care?’ And the honest answer is, ‘Yes, I care. I care a great deal. But not enough.’”
We see Arnold evolve over the years, shedding his insecurities and obsessions with on-again-off-again boyfriend Ed (a mostly bland Ward Horton), taking on a new lover (a skimpily clad Michael Hsu Rosen), and scraping together the kind of life he wants for himself: one that includes family of choice by fostering a gay teen (a woefully miscast and misdirected Jack DiFalco) and defiantly declaring his own self-worth in a multi-pronged confrontation with his mother (Mercedes Ruehl).
Playwright Harvey Fierstein’s original work evolved over several years at La Mama, where he convinced its founder Ellen Stewart that it was a trilogy so he could have the theatre space in subsequent seasons. The second part, Fugue in a Nursery, and the third installment, Widows and Children First followed and just over four years after its original downtown opening, the three-part play opened on Broadway, winning Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actor in a Play (Fierstein). Like last season’s The Boys in the Band, Torch Song precedes the AIDS crisis, and much like that play, this crisis becomes one of self-worth, an existential battle that nearly all members of LGBTQ community have fought at one point or another.
Ed tries abandoning Arnold for a more socially acceptable life with Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja), a woman who checks all the boxes and tries as she might to understand Ed’s conflicted feelings. Is Ed bisexual or a gay man trapped in a straight world? This all plays out in a huge bed with intercut scenes between Ed, Laurel, Arnold, and Alan — and in some ways, lays a stylistic framework for a similar theatrical convention deployed by Tony Kushner in the gay fantasia Angels in America, which premiered more than a decade later.
In Torch Song’s final scenes, we see Arnold living the life he always wanted, but life on life’s terms has thrown him a few curveballs. Alan is no longer in the picture, and the reason for his absence is just as relevant today as when the play was written. We’re finally rewarded with the arrival of Ms. Ruehl as Arnold’s mother. The battle of the Beckoffs is a heated and emotional one. The pair’s chemistry bristles as the characters unleash years of pent-up resentment. Finally embracing his voice and independence, Arnold declares:
There is nothing I need from anyone except for love and respect. And anyone who can’t give me those two things has no place in my life. You are my mother. I love you. I do. But if you can’t respect me then you have no business being here.
The night I was in attendance, gasps and tears reverberated through the audience, such was the impact of this verbal fisticuffs. I, too, thought how sad for those who have to face family rejection, but in spite of the warm tears running down my face, this was not my story as I remembered it. My parents accepted my coming out, which was buffered by my brother, who had read them a letter I wrote before making that fateful call. “We love you. We support you,” they said through stifled cries.
But as I continued to mull over Torch Song in the days since seeing it, a cloudy memory haunted me. There was something buried in my past that the play had dislodged. Walking my dog, I rounded the corner of my block and stopped dead in my tracks. Clear as day, I was in Blytheville, Arkansas circa 2008, standing in the living room of my boyfriend’s parents’ house. We were there for the funeral of his brother, tragically killed in a steel mill accident at the age of 29. “Meet my roommate,” he said. We were living together and had just celebrated our one-year anniversary. I had no idea that he wasn’t out to his family. His mother could barely meet my eye. Not then, not ever.
I’ve carried that shame with me for more than a decade, part of collective battering sending a message that love, depending on who is giving or receiving it, should somehow be measured differently. Mr. Fierstein knew that wasn’t true 40 years ago, and fortunately for today’s theatergoers, he was brave enough to write about it.
Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song
The Hayes Theater
240 West 44th Street
Through February 24, 2019
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor and chief critic. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.