05 October 2013

'Torch Song Trilogy'

I happened to be visiting my mother in Bethesda in September when she and a friend had tickets for the Studio Theatre revival of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, so I joined them for the Saturday matinee performance on 21 September in the Studio’s home space in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C.  (Logan Circle, in downtown D.C., is a recently gentrified and revived neighborhood that sort of resembles, in tone and function but not architecture, New York City’s SoHo—full of art galleries, restaurants, bars, boutiques and antique shops, and theaters.  The Studio Theatre, one of Washington’s oldest rep companies, moved into a multi-theater building there some years ago from another location.)  I hadn’t seen the New York stagings of Torch Song, either at La MaMa E.T.C. or on Broadway.

At La MaMa, the three plays in the trilogy, The International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First!, were presented separately in 1978 and ’79, then Fierstein put them together under the title Torch Song Trilogy for an uptown Manhattan production by John Glines at the Richard Alan Center in October 1981.  The combined show didn’t do well at the box office and was about to close early when a couple of late reviews appeared, praising the plays (one of which was Mel Gussow’s New York Times notice), and the production took off, moving first to the Actors Theatre in Greenwich Village in January 1982 (with Fierstein, Matthew Broderick as foster son David, and Estelle Getty as Arnold’s mother) and then transferring to Broadway’s Little Theatre (now the Helen Hayes) in June, where it ran for 1,222 performances (with Fisher Stevens replacing Broderick) and won two Tony Awards, including Best Play and a Best Actor nod for Fierstein himself.  Torch Song made Fierstein a star (he went on to play, among other notable roles, Edna Turnblad in the stage-musical adaptation of Hairspray, for which he won his fourth Tony in 2003) and has had a stage life around the country ever since then.  The current Washington production, which began performances on 4 September in the Studio’s Mead Theatre and runs through 29 December, is directed by Michael Kahn, the artistic director of the Capital’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Torch Song Trilogy is based on Fierstein’s own autobiography.  According to the Studio Theatre’s subscriber newsletter, Studio Sightlines, the underemployed actor went through “a whirlwind romance that soon started to unravel” in 1977.  Not unlike many theater people, he saw the theatrical possibilities even as he went through the pain of the break-up: “Even during the last four-hour phone call, I’d keep thinking, ‘Hmmm, that’s good—better write that down.’”  Depressed, the writer says a therapist friend told him he’d either “kill himself or write a play about it.”  So, he wrote one.

Originally, Fierstein says, he had no plans to write a trilogy.  He approached La MaMa's Ellen Stewart (about whom I’ve written on ROT in “The Pushcart Theater: Ellen Stewart (1919-2011)” on 4 April 2011) and arranged a slot for the first one-act of the eventual series.  Then a friend suggested pitching a trilogy and Stewart bought the idea and the three short plays each premièred at La MaMa over a two-year period.  The playwright combined the plays into a single script called Torch Song Trilogy which was presented uptown in 1981 before the moves to Off-Broadway and then Broadway.  It was one of the first (if not the first) works with openly gay themes to play on the Great White Way, at least half a decade before gay characters and stories entered the mainstream of American culture.  (Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, a seminal gay play, débuted in New York in 1968, but it was Off-Broadway, then still a more welcoming venue for challenging work.  Though individual gay characters had appeared on Broadway, early Broadway fare did touch on homosexuality but they mostly either hinted at the subject, like William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, 1957-59, or they tiptoed around it delicately as in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, 1934-36, and Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy, 1953-55.)  “What Harvey proves,“ says producer John Glines, “Is that you can use a gay context and a gay experience and speak in universal truths.”
Fierstein began his professional career as a female impersonator in East Village cabarets when he was still in high school; Ethel Merman was a favorite character in his routines (which may have been a foundation for his gig as Edna Turnblad).  He soon expanded his repertoire and gained a reputation in the downtown scene of New York’s nightclubs and boîtes.  He studied painting and art education at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, his home borough, after graduating, but continued to audition.  Andy Warhol cast the “zaftig, gravelly voiced” would-be performer in Pork at La MaMa in 1971 (when he was still 16), and then Fierstein began his own playwriting efforts to create appropriate roles for himself.  When Ellen Stewart presented the first part of Torch Song, Fierstein’s career path changed substantially.  He continued to perform (as his role in Hairspray attests), but he’s best known these days as a playwright and librettist with such credits as the book for La Cage aux Folles (1983-87, his third Tony), followed by Legs Diamond (1988-89), A Catered Affair (2008), Newsies (opened 2012 and still going), and Kinky Boots (opened in April and still running).  He also wrote another trilogy of one-acts, Safe Sex (1987), and adapted Torch Song for the big screen in 1988 (in which he also appeared with Anne Bancroft as Arnold’s mother and Matthew Broderick this time as Alan).  Fierstein is also a well-recognized activist for gay causes and issues.

Torch Song, set in the early and late 1970s, centers on Arnold Beckoff (the Fierstein role) who sings torch songs in New York City drag clubs.  Each act of the 3½-hour trilogy focuses on a different aspect of Arnold’s life: The International Stud, the one-act with which the writer started following his busted affair, is about his meeting Ed, a bisexual teacher who hasn’t come to terms with his sexuality; Fugue in a Nursery follows a year later when Arnold meets Alan with whom he settles into an idyllic relationship as the partners plan to adopt a son until a violent act of homophobia intervenes; and Widows and Children First! finds Arnold five years later raising a gay foster son, David, and contending with his visiting mother’s judgments and narrow-mindedness.  As Fierstein acknowledges, due to his own family history “family was everything” for him, and Torch Song is really all about family—having one, finding one, building one, keeping one, mending one.  Yes, it’s about gay people, their images (including self-images), and issues (the plays were all written before the AIDS crisis was recognized, as the first-act mimed, but still graphic, backroom sex scene in the bar attests), but all the plays are fundamentally about family—biological or self-defined—and familial love and acceptance.  Like many subjects with which we’ve become (over)familiar from decades of literary treatment, when a new slant is taken, they become new again and we get to (re)consider them with new eyes.  So when Fierstein examines his family—husbands, son, mother—from the viewpoint of a gay man in a gay milieu, we get to look at those old bromides anew, and we learn all over again what’s important, especially what hurts and wounds (and, yes, Torch Song is a comedy).  At the same time, of course, the playwright makes clear, without preaching (well, there is one speech . . .), that gay people have the same needs as everyone else when it comes to love, respect, and honesty within relationships.  (We know that now, of course, in 2013—it’s been demonstrated often in the past 35 years—but back in 1978, ’79, and ’81, it wasn’t so well recognized.  Boys in the Band dealt with clichés, not what lay beneath them.) 

Because of that time lag, Torch Song is dated.  (Oddly, because the plays were all written before the advent of the AIDS crisis, they’re less dated than they might have been.)  As Peter Marks notes in his Washington Post review, “[T]he B.R. world (Before RuPaul) that Fierstein introduced us to no longer looks so unfamiliar” as it did at the start of the last quarter of the 20th century.  Nonetheless, as Marks goes on to observe, “[T]he feelings the play evokes, about being the other and yet longing for the conventional consolations of family and self-respect, remain affectingly on point.”  Aside from that, Torch Song Trilogy is a part of theater history and since I missed it the first time(s) around in New York, I’m glad I got to see it here now so I can put it into perspective in that respect as well. 

As a play, the three one-acts, even if Fierstein didn’t intend them to be conjoined, work surprisingly well as a single play.  I hadn’t realized, from what I knew of the play from hearsay gathered over the years, that the characters and situations carry over; I thought each playlet was more discrete than they actually are.  It’s really only one character that threads the fabric of the play, aside from Arnold himself; Ed appears in all three acts, but Alan dies between acts two and three and the repercussions of that aren’t seen until act three and are part of the text of the last part.  The country house that’s the setting for Fugue is mentioned in International Stud and referred to again in Widows and Children, and even the possibility of David, the about-to-be-adopted foster kid in act three, is hinted at in act two.  I don’t know how much reworking Fierstein did to make Torch Song out of the one-acts in 1981, but Mel Gussow, in his review of the Off-Broadway début of the combined plays, calls it “a carefully abridged version” of the original one-acts, and however he accomplished it, the playwright wove the three separate playlets into a more-than-acceptable (if long—the original Torch Song ran over four hours, apparently) three-act comedy-drama.  (In fact, as they now stand, you couldn’t produce the acts separately as one-acts.  I don’t know if the old versions of the scripts are still available for staging, but you’d need to find them to make individual presentations work.)

Fierstein’s writing is biting and witty, even 35 years later.  His characters’ snappish remarks and come-back one-liners still crackle and hit their marks.  Sometimes, they sound as if they’re about to be a cliché, then the playwright takes a left-hand jog and surprises me.  I suppose the whole notion of a wisecracking gay man is a stereotype by now—even The Boys in the Band used that trait as a matrix for its humor—but given Arnold’s life and personality, it fits.  (By the way, the fact that Fierstein wrote Arnold for himself—to be accurate, of course, Arnold is Fierstein—doesn’t in the least make it difficult for another actor to play the part.  In fact, Brandon Uranowitz, who’s the un-Harvey Fierstein in pretty much all respects, was dubbed “an Arnold Beckoff for all (theater) seasons” by Peter Marks.  Other area reviewers completely agreed and several already pronounced him a Hayes Award nominee.) 

The Studio’s Mead Theatre is a relatively small space, with a steeply raked house of semicircular rows of seats embracing a tiny thrust stage.  Director Kahn staged the play, with its several locales, with mostly suggested settings, designed by James Noone, depending frequently on a few carefully selected pieces of furniture.  In a scene in the middle of International Stud, after Arnold and Ed had been together for a few weeks and Ed has begun to be distant and Arnold calls him, the two apartments are represented simply by a pair of chairs with a small table and a telephone.  In Fugue, Ed and Laurel’s country house is embodied in a huge, raked bed that serves simultaneously as the hosts’ bed and Arnold and Alan’s as well—and later is also the kitchen where Arnold and Laurel wash dishes and talk (at the foot) and the barn where Alan and Ed screw (at the head).  In fact, only Widows and Children, which has a single set throughout, is a fragmentary realistic apartment where Arnold and David live.  It all works fine, though the three acts each have a slightly different staging style to match the design style.  Act one is somewhat surrealistic, with some scenes revealed on an elevated platform above the stage as a singer, Lady Blues (Ashleigh King, with a gorgeous, torchy voice), accompanied on the piano by George Fulginiti-Shakar, moves about the stage and the auditorium between scenes.  (The music for the production was composed and directed by Eric Shimelonis, who also designed the sound.)  In act two, with the giant bed from which the actors never depart (though they cover themselves with the sheets whenever they’re “off”), the performance takes on an expressionistic tone in which I was never quite sure where anyone was or who could hear and see whom.  (Lights help define the space in both acts one and two, designed by Peter West.)  Finally, as the set suggests, act three is essentially a realistic play (one reviewer calls it “sit-com-y”) with a kitchen up right—in a Jewish play, food and its preparation can’t be out of mind altogether—and a busy bathroom off right.  It sounds like the production should come out a mishmash, but it all blends in because each style suits the act aptly.  It wasn’t until afterwards that I realized what Kahn and Noone had done.  (One local review-writer observes: “This entire show has the uncanny effect of being not only authentic to the period but also a spot-on emulation of theatrical production values from the time.”  I didn’t really see that myself.)

Frank Labovitz’s ’70s costumes are period-perfect (and, yes, I remember the ’70s pretty well).  He made sure to put Arnold into fittingly flouncy and flashy duds, especially for his drag act in International Stud (which, by the way, is the name of the club where Arnold performs and where he picks up Ed the first time).  Ed, as befits his closeted persona, is dressed “straight” in jeans and a work shirt—and later in other perfectly middle-class establishment attire.  I don’t know if it’s an acting choice or a habit of Uranowitz, but his Arnold continually shifts, rewraps, or adjusts his clothing as if he were always just uncomfortable in his disguise.  (He also fusses with his mop of kinky hair as a character quirk.)  It sure looked like the actor and Noone were in cahoots so that Arnold has clothes with which he can indulge his tic.

Since I’ve introduced the performances at this point, let me go on with that.  I wondered, when the show started with Arnold’s long monologue at his backstage dressing table at the drag club, before I got used to Uranowitz, a skinny actor with “ridiculously thick hair” who flounces a lot, how Fierstein, a chunkier, gruffer-voiced guy, would have done Arnold—since I don't think he swishes quite so blatantly.   Imagine, if you can, a tall, fem Arnold Horshack, including the speech pattern!  (Now there’s a period reference!)  Nonetheless, it works perfectly well and Uranowitz’s performance conveys all of Arnold’s insecurities and dreams as well as his fierceness and compassion compellingly (though I’d probably resists saying he owns the role—that’s just a little absolute).  Todd Lawson’s Ed and Alex Mills’s Alan are both entirely convincing as Arnold’s two divergent loves.  Lawson has more of an arc to work on, sensitively going from the confused bisexual (leaning toward gay) in act one to the recovered hetero of act two to the man in act three who has finally realized where is preferences lie and is ready now to live up to them.  Mills, though his Alan is sweet and smarter than he at first sounds, has less to play but pulls off the wise-before-his-time boy-man with conviction and sympathy.  As Arnold’s mother, Gordana Rashovich brought to mind a bitchier Linda Richman, the SNL character Mike Myers used to play (“like buttah”—remember?).  The Brooklyn-Jewish accents, for both Uranowitz and Rashovich, swerve awfully close to cliché, but on the other hand, there are people who really talk like that (and not a few of them live in Fierstein’s native borough).  I mean, Fran Drescher (who’s from nearby Queens) isn’t pretending!

Sarah Grace Wilson has the most thankless role in Torch Song.  Not only is her Laurel the lone woman (aside from one Jewish mother, a wholly different category) in the play’s gay male universe, but her Laurel has broken up Arnold’s first romance, then she subtly manipulates Ed, Arnold, and even Alan throughout act two, and later tries to blackmail Ed into returning to her by falsely saying she’s pregnant.  Wilson manages to pull all this off without coming out a villain or even a gorgon, and we know that Laurel has her own needs that probably compel her behavior because Wilson doesn’t play her as ego-driven.  Of all the roles, however, only David comes off as less than convincing.  It’s not entirely Michael Lee Brown’s fault because the part is written too old: even given David’s short life of deprivation and neglect, he’s far too self-aware and introspective for a 15-year-old street kid, which Brown portrays without even a hint of bravado or the sense that he’s wearing his big brother’s clothes.  But Brown not only looks too old for the part, he carries himself like a 20-something.  (I taught a lot of both age groups—believe me, there’s a noticeable difference.)  Widows and Children is a tad contrived anyway—this is the act in which “that” speech occurs, when Arnold lets him mother have it by reciting all the play’s messages and lessons—and Brown and David only compound that problem.  David even serves as a deus ex machina when he tells Arnold to straighten his relationships with his mother and Ed out or he’s apt to split.  (It’s one of the aspects of Torch Song that marks it as the work of a tyro playwright.)

The press here was almost wholly positive, even when some reviewers had qualms going into such a potentially dated portrait of a milieu.  Marks in the Post, in addition to his effusiveness over Uranowitz’s performance, writes of “the emotional zing” of Kahn’s production of this “profound” play.  In Washington’s City Paper, Trey Graham, calling Torch Song “a rough beast of a play,” vacillates from “[b]rittle and silly one moment, hopelessly stagey in another, urgent and acid and fierce in the next.”  In the end, though, Graham feels the play fulfills its title’s promise, ending as “a narrative lament, a ballad of pain distilled, a chronicle of struggle that heals and strengthens.”  Congratulating the Studio for presenting the play, Graham also thanks Kahn “for digging thoroughly into the play to find what’s still raw and nervy and lacerating about it.”  In Washington Life Magazine, Chuck Conconi calls the “poignantly painful and wickedly humorous” Torch Song a “powerful production, smartly staged” at the Studio in Kahn’s “smart and effective” interpretation. 

On line, on Examiner.com, Kyle Osborne declares that Torch Song “looks the audience in the eye, grabs it by its collective lapels and engages them for a three act journey that mixes the joys and pains of romantic and familial relationships.”  And Elliot Lanes starts off,  If a particular production can gage [sic] how a whole theatre season is going to be, then Torch Song Trilogy at Studio Theatre tells us that it is going to be a fantastic year of theatre here in DC” on MD Theatre Guide.  He calls Kahn’s production, “the perfect balance of comedy and pathos without going for the schmaltz,” labeling it “a must go to show” which “is still as important as it was when it first premiered” and “even more timely and urgent than ever.”  Torch Song Trilogy . . . has been given an immensely entertaining and compassionate new production,” writes John Stoltenberg on DC Metro Theater Arts.  He adds that Kahn’s production, which “pack[s] . . . a powerful wallop,” “uncovers the emotional soul of a play that was presciently there all along.” 

Torch Song Trilogy is indubitably a snapshot of a specific time in our social history, but, as most of the reviewers admonish, it still has worthwhile things to say to us, and Michael Kahn’s mounting of the historic play at the Studio Theatre leaves no doubt on that score.  From a purely theatrical perspective, the performances and production are top-notch,  The Studio is one of D.C.’s theaters where I seldom see a bad production even when I don’t care for the script (Venus in Fur is an example, reported on ROT on 11 July 2011)—and it does usually select an interesting season.  As I said earlier, I’m glad I saw Torch Song for its theater-history significance, but I also got to see a good show, all other considerations aside.

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