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REVIEW: ‘Torch Song’ on Broadway reminds that struggle for individual rights and dignity isn’t over

The adapted play has been reduced four to two hours and 45 minutes, but its narrative weaknesses get exposed and its shortened length seems endless.

From a cultural and political point of view, the revival of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song” is, as the French say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Since 1981, when Fierstein’s trilogy covering the life and loves of drag queen Arnold Beckoff appeared as one play, there have been historic advances in gay rights, but the characters and conflicts in “Torch Song” still persist. Like Ed, Arnold’s on-again-off-again lover, many gay men use a bisexual cover to avoid loving, same-sex relationships. Like Alan, Arnold’s lover murdered with savage hate, gays are being attacked by Proud Boys marauding the streets (even in Manhattan). Arnold’s mother is pretty accepting of Arnold’s sexuality but still harbors reservations about his “lifestyle”: today, evangelical Christian parents (even a vice president) advocate conversion therapy. Kudos to “Torch Song” on Broadway to remind us that the struggle for individual rights and dignity isn’t over.

The cast of ‘Torch Song’ at their opening night curtain call. Photo courtesy Torch Song on Broadway

From a dramatic point of view, this “Torch Song” disappoints. Being of a certain age, I remember vividly Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” way back when and, although it’s unfair to compare ANYbody to the one-and-only Harvey, there was an immediacy and revelation that’s missing now. Fierstein has shrewdly adapted the play and reduced it from four to two hours and 45 minutes, but its narrative weaknesses get exposed and its shortened length seems endless. Director Moises Kaufman’s casting complicates matters. Ward Horton’s Ed, Arnold’s man-of-his-dreams, is all-American blond, blue-eyed and handsomely built, but doesn’t get much beyond bisexual cipher. Michael Hsu Rosen as Arnold’s “boytoy” Alan, with whom he finds “true love,” is okay, but their relationship is so undeveloped it’s almost incomprehensible that there’s anything to Arnold’s attraction to him other than the prizes underneath his revealingly snug, low-cut briefs. Jack DiFalco’s David, whom Arnold wants to adopt as a teenager, gets reduced to a shtick caricature: Besides looking well beyond 16 years old, he acts like he spent more time in the Borscht Belt than in foster homes.

The uber-talented Michael Urie carries “Torch Song” beginning to end, even in the interminable third part of the trilogy. The first act, “International Stud,” is his finest, when he introduces himself as he gets into drag, then when he goes looking for love in all the wrong places. Give Urie credit just for sustaining a performance after hilariously executing a scene of vigorously taking back entry in a back room while trying to light a Marlboro in the dark. It’s so over the top, how do you top that? Urie manages a lot of repetitive histrionics in the final part, “Widows and Children First,” when he’s playing off an excellent Mercedes Ruehl as his widowed mother (and she off him). Arnold’s still grieving the loss of Alan, which is hard to pull off because the weakest second part, “Fugue in a Nursery,” never dramatizes how deep their love was. Still, there’s a beautiful reconciliatory discovery between mother and son near the end. The torch song Arnold’s mother knew is only in the movies. Arnold’s challenge going forward with Ed, this time for good, is to get the torch song out of his life for good. And THAT’s for the better.

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