In the past few weeks, the United States has faced a harrowing rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes. Because of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and the slew of hateful vandalism at synagogues across the US, I have grown increasingly scared to be a Jew in this country. Coupling this bad news with Trump’s threats towards the transgender community and the rest of the LGBT+ community, my anxiety and depression have been at a fever pitch the likes of which I’ve only experienced during the worst mental health points of my life. In these scary times we’re living in, and with the general election just days away, I’m going to the theatre more than ever as a way to escape my troubles. It just so happens a lot of the theatre I’m seeing is about Jewish and queer identity.
As a gay Jew, there are a surprising amount of theatrical works that prove extremely relevant to my life and heritage. My favorite play of all time, Paula Vogel’s Indecent, deals with the censoring of Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance, which is about the daughter of a Jewish brothel keeper falling in love with one of the prostitutes. The emotional roller coaster of a musical that is William Finn’s Falsettos is about a gay Jewish man and his family as they deal with his son’s bar mitzvah and coming of age, as well as his half-Jewish lover’s fight with AIDS. Both of these pieces came into my life in the 2016-17 Broadway season, and became indelible parts of my identity. And now in this 2018-19 season, we have a revival that has quickly become one of my favorite theatrical experiences of any Broadway season. That revival is Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song, and true to its name, it proves a light in these dark times.
Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy first premiered throughout the 1970s as three separate one-acts (The International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First!) off-Broadway. In 1982 the three plays were combined into a four-hour evening at the Little Theatre on Broadway, and it subsequently won Best Play and Best Actor in a Play at the Tonys. And now, 36 years later, it’s back at the Little - now Helen Hayes Theatre - after a sold-out run at Second Stage in 2017 which I had the pleasure of attending. This remounting of that revival is ninety minutes shorter than the original 1982 production, but its content remains as remarkable and poignant as ever.
Torch Song is the three-part story of one Arnold Beckoff, a Jewish drag queen (drag name: Virginia Ham) who dreams of finding love and respect, and maybe even starting a family of his own. Arnold’s journey towards his dream starts in The International Stud, where he meets the bisexual schoolteacher Ed at the titular gay bar and tries to figure out what his on-and-off relationship with him is meant to be; Fugue in a Nursery picks up a few years later and finds Arnold and his new, younger boyfriend, Alan, at Ed and his wife Laurel’s country house for a weekend full of relationship hijinks; and Widows and Children First! picks up a few years after with Arnold balancing a visit from his overprotective and homophobic Jewish mother while being a foster father to David, a troubled, gay teenage boy he’s taken in after the untimely, hate crime-related death of Alan. Arnold’s emotional journey centers around his desire for love, acceptance, and respect for who he is as an out and proud gay man. Arnold’s big confrontation with his mother in Widows and Children First! is a powerful and heartbreaking climax in a play that melds comedy and drama perfectly. Never has a monologue so resonated with me before as Arnold’s here: “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… if you can’t respect me then you have no business being here.” I have seen this production three times now, and every time Arnold says this to his mother, I cry. I wish I could go back in time and make this my high school senior yearbook quote. This story of seeking acceptance in a time when homophobia and equal rights were threatened daily is still relevant. In 1982 it was unthinkable a gay man could start a family with a husband and child; in 2018 a gay person has the right to marry and adopt – but a reactionary Supreme Court majority could overturn these laws in the future.
Harvey Fierstein’s script is a masterpiece, with classic one-liners aplenty amongst excellent character development. Fierstein himself iconically starred as Arnold in the original production. In this revival, Arnold is reinvented by the masterful ball of gay joy that is Michael Urie. Urie is a gifted physical comedian as well as a terrifically quippy actor (most know him as Marc St. James on Ugly Betty - who may or may not be the source of my byline). His performance as Arnold is so make-you-laugh-make-you-cry wonderful that you leave the theatre wet-eyed with tears of both laughter and heartbreak. He deserves a Best Actor Tony and then some. I have followed Urie’s theatrical exploits for a few years now – I missed his run as Frump in the How to Succeed revival but caught him in the Douglas Carter Beane backstage dramedy Shows For Days with Patti LuPone, the hilarious Red Bull Theater production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector, and the pro-shot of the one man Barbra Streisand comedy Buyer and Cellar – he has never turned in a bad performance as far as I’m concerned. Alongside Urie’s bravura performance, the rest of the cast of Torch Song proves stellar as well. Oscar and Tony winner Mercedes Ruehl is a force of nature as Arnold’s mother. Ward Horton proves a handsome and surprisingly deep Ed. Jack DiFalco, though definitely a bit older than his character, still makes David a feisty and lovable scamp of a foster kid. And though they only appear in the second segment of the play, Roxanna Hope Radja and Michael Hsu Rosen make wonderful impressions as Laurel and Alan. Moisés Kaufman’s direction and David Zinn’s period set design are pitch-perfect.
This season has been stellar for plays. And this revival proves no exception to that fact. If you want to see some incredible performances in a touching and funny revival of an important play, head to the Helen Hayes and check out Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song. You will feel all the feelings, and then some.
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)