The show may be set in the late 1970s, but for new play Torch Song — an abridged version of earlier works by Harvey Fierstein, who also originally starred — the show’s themes are as timely now as ever.
Meet Arnold Beckoff (an outstanding Michael Urie). As a young gay man in the 1970s, his caustic wit and one liners are clearly his armor for a rough world, but peel back the layers and viewers quickly see what Arnold wants: acceptance, and, mostly, love.
In the nearly three-hour run time, theatergoers follow Arnold from nights at a backroom bar (leading to some of the funniest physical comedy I’ve seen recently) to weekends away with his ex, to —finally — the real wallop of emotion: a visit from his mother (the perfect and powerful Mercedes Ruehl).
The three sections, taking place over a matter of years, have different tones, and certainly can each feel like their own complete work.
We kick off with “International Stud,” where we’re introduced to Arnold as drag performer Virginia Ham, uncomfortably and neurotically navigating casual sex, but dying to get serious with just one man, Ed (Ward Horton, nailing the kind of wishy-washy indifference from romantic partners that’s colder and harder to process than outright dislike).
Section two, “Fugue in a Nursery,” is the funniest of the bunch, taking place a few years later and nearly entirely in a giant bed. Direction by Moisés Kaufman and set design by David Zinn ups the stakes as four characters — Arnold, his ex Ed, Arnold’s new young boyfriend Alan (Michael Hsu Rosen), and Ed’s new girlfriend Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja) have rapid-fire heart to hearts, trading quips and emotional confessions in equal measure.
Michael Urie does an exceedingly stellar job at inviting viewers into his thoughts, drawing them in with measured looks and sly glances.
Throughout all parts, Urie does an exceedingly stellar job at inviting viewers into his thoughts, drawing them in with measured looks and sly glances. It’s never over-the-top, merely an ability to keep an audience hooked moment to moment, emotionally connecting not only with his scene partners but also, crucially, with the people watching.
The only time it’s obvious that this work was at one point longer is the beginning of the third part, “Widows and Children First!”. While eventually things get cleared up, so much happens between section two and three viewers may feel like they’re missing part of the story, even if they are not. It could briefly take people out of the emotional beats to be wondering on a plot- or line-level what exactly is going on.
It’s a small quibble, however, because when it lands, it lands, as this show does particularly well in the final hour, when Arnold’s overbearing mom finally appears.
It’s here, when these two people who clearly love each other fight and talk and yell about death and being gay and the hurt we inherent, that you’ll be reaching for the tissues, both in the theater and, perhaps, later as well, as you continue to turn this show over in your head in the coming days.
Torch Song is part of the canon, at one point a groundbreaking and controversial work. But in this production, it transcends merely being a history play and remains instead a lively and funny show that features a new high from the always-likeable Urie. It’s no happily ever after, but you’ll walk out of the theater desperate to be closer to the people around you.
And fair warning: You’re also probably going to want to call your mom.