Seeing the original “Torch Song Trilogy” off-Broadway in 1982 remains an indelible theater-going memory — so much so that I approached the current Broadway transfer after the acclaimed revival last season at Second Stage’s off-Broadway theater, with a certain apprehension that the newly compacted version — pared down from three acts to two — would diminish the impact of the original. Subtracting some of the dialogue may have cut some laugh lines, but it has smartly brought aspects of the play into higher definition, allowing the audience more focused time to empathize with the characters.

The first challenge in mounting a successful revival of “Torch Song,” is finding an actor who can make the role his own and escape the looming shadow of Harvey Fierstein, who originated, or rather incarnated, the role both on stage and in the 1988 film version.  

The fascinating choice of Michael Urie, probably best known in the theater for his turn in “Buyer and Cellar” off-Broadway, gives the role to a chameleon actor who could not be more unlike Fierstein. Yet Urie triumphs in this play, primarily through the brilliance of his physical comedy, which adds another layer to the play’s fast and funny dialogue. The zingers landed by Urie’s elastic expressions and precisely observed gestures — perhaps best described as Charlie Chaplin dubbed by Fierstein — are priceless. Urie is less of a “teddy bear” than Fierstein, but knows how to show off a gown and a pair of heels with a charisma that validates his glamor, while never hiding his vulnerability — a key quality as Arnold turns out to have a broken heart of gold under all that glitz.

Set before the onslaught of the AIDS crisis, Arnold is a torch-singing drag queen in search of meaningful human connection, and therefore out of sync with the culture of anonymous backroom sexual conquests that characterized the time. Though he informs us, in the opening monologue of the “International Stud” section, that he is reliably attracted to men who could be only described as “old and ugly,” he soon encounters a conflicted “Ken Doll” look-alike in Ed, who initially appears to be fascinated with Arnold’s surreal world and emotional availability, not to mention his unsurpassed repartee.

Their tryst endures until the flip-flopping Ed is made to choose between his male lover and the woman with whom friends have set him up. With his on-again, off-again affection, Ed needs to be more than a stereotype in search of his true self for us to care about him and Ward Horton gives a nuanced performance that makes his character’s confusion both plausible and painful. Once Ed leaves him, Arnold meets up with the young male model, Alan (the gentle and accepting Michael Hsu Rosen), with whom he shares a few years of more or less placid domesticity. During this interlude, in the absurdist second section, “Nursery Fugue,” the former lovers reunite with their current partners in tow for a proverbial “weekend in the country.” The results are predictable: no one has a good time and everyone ends up even less sure where their loyalties should or do lie.

A few years later, in Arnold’s rabbit-bedecked Manhattan apartment — a cleverly flexible and atmospheric set by David Zinn — Alan has died and Arnold is now living with an implausibly precocious teenage foster son, David (Jack Di Falco). In this production, David is much more obviously out, and one almost feels like David is waiting for the grown ups to play catch up, as he urges Arnold and Ed to get it on.  

As the three “play house,” Arnold’s formidable mother (Mercedes Ruehl) arrives. Ruehl makes for a imposing mix of antagonist and smother-mother in the show’s final face-off, a bout that Arnold likens more than once to a boxing match. Arriving bearing gifts from the sunshine state along with very firm ideas about how things ought to be done and aren’t, Oscar and Tony winner Ruehl is compulsively watchable; a totem of Miami beach tan and stylishly respectable attire concealing an unstoppable life force. Her resolute dignity when confronted by her son’s assertions of how she has failed him is wrenching, as she is unable to give him the total acceptance he asks for.

While the story is centered on the life of the principled and good-hearted Arnold, I did feel that both Arnold’s mother and Laurel, Ed’s unfortunate wife (played by Roxanna Hope Radja, giving a determinedly cheerful performance) got the short shrift. Laurel delays childbearing, agrees to a “open” marriage and welcomes her husband’s former lover, Arnold, into her home; all seemingly in an attempt make things work with the man she loves and without reward. And though her behavior is vilified, it does appear that Mrs. Beckoff is working toward acceptance, so I was somewhat relieved when Arnold decided to cut her some slack and leave the door open for what will likely be the next clash of love and pain as they struggle to find a way back to a truce, however temporary.

It falls to director Moisés Kaufman to keep the one-liners aloft, and he does so adroitly, at a pace that means neither we nor the actors have time to catch our collective breath between laughs. But under all the verbal jousting is the sense that worthwhile people, no matter how flawed or extreme, are reaching toward each other and a shared humanity. That alone in the present moment makes “Torch Song” not only worth reviving, but worth celebrating.

 

“Torch Song” opened on Thurs., Nov. 1, 2018 at the Helen Hayes Theater.

Creative: Written by Harvey Fierstein; Directed by Moisés Kaufman; Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by Clint Ramos; Lighting Design by David Lander; Sound Design by John Gromada; Projection Design by John Narun.

Producers: Richie Jackson, Eric Kuhn & Justin Mikita, Stephanie P. McClelland, Ken Fakler, David Mirvish, Lassen Blume/Karmen Boyz Productions, CJC & Priest/Judith Ann Abrams, Burnt Umber/True Love Productions, Caiola Productions/Torchbearers, Jujamcyn Theaters and Second Stage Theater.

Cast: Mercedes Ruehl, Michael Urie, Jack DiFalco, Ward Horton, Roxanna Hope Radja, Michael Hsu Rosen.