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© Joan Marcus
© Joan Marcus
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Theater: Mother-Son Conflict Burns Fiercely in 'Torch Song'

Picture of Bill Stevenson
Updated: 24 October 2017
Michael Urie and Mercedes Ruehl strike sparks off each other in timely revival of Harvey Fierstein’s landmark play.

Back in 1982, when Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy opened on Broadway, drag queens weren’t exactly mainstream. The first-act scene that includes pantomimed sex in a bar’s back room wasn’t standard Main Stem fare either. Nowadays drag queens can be seen on TV in RuPaul’s Drag Race and on Broadway in the long-running Kinky Boots. As for back-room sex, it’s still not something you expect to see on stage.

Michael Urie in 'Torch Song' | © Joan Marcus
Michael Urie in Torch Song | © Joan Marcus

For the wonderful Off Broadway revival currently running at Second Stage, Fierstein has trimmed about an hour from the script, and the show has one intermission instead of two. The title is now just Torch Song. At about two hours and forty minutes, it’s still longer than most contemporary American plays. But you probably won’t glance at your watch. Thanks to Fierstein’s still fresh, very funny writing and terrific performances by Michael Urie, Mercedes Ruehl, and the rest of the cast, Torch Song is once again one of the best shows in town.

Search for the stud

Urie plays Arnold Beckoff (the role originated by Fierstein), a young New York City drag queen who frequents a bar called the International Stud (which is also the name of the first act). He knows it isn’t the best place to find a man to date. His ideal international stud is “a guy who knows what he wants and ain’t a-scared to get it.”

Michael Rosen (L) and Michael Urie in 'Torch Song' | © Joan Marcus
Michael Rosen (L) and Michael Urie in Torch Song | © Joan Marcus

One night Arnold does meet a great guy named Ed (Ward Horton) at the bar. The only catch is he’s bisexual. It’s 1974, and Ed wants to fool around with men and have a relationship with a woman, too. Ed remains attracted to Arnold but settles down with Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja).

Giant bed action

The second act, called “Fugue in a Nursery,” takes place at Ed’s farmhouse upstate. Ed and Laurel have invited Arnold and his cute and younger new boyfriend Alan (Michael Rosen) for the weekend. The question is, does Arnold still love Ed? For that matter, does he love Alan? Is Ed content with Laurel, or would he be happier with a man like Arnold? The action takes place on a giant bed. Actually, there isn’t all that much action in the second act, but the conversations and relationship complications hold our attention.

Roxanna Hope Radja, Ward Horton, Michael Urie, and Michel Rosen in 'Torch Song' | © Joan Marcus
Roxanna Hope Radja, Ward Horton, Michael Urie, and Michel Rosen in Torch Song | © Joan Marcus

The third act, “Widows and Children First,” is the best. It has the most conflict, the most heart, and juicy dialogue for the actors. It’s now 1980. Arnold has settled down in a homey apartment and is fostering a teenage son, David (Jack DiFalco).

We learn that David is gay and that his stays with foster families haven’t worked out. He’s smart-alecky, bright, and likes being mothered by Arnold. Ed is visiting, sleeping on the couch. So is Arnold’s mother (Mercedes Ruehl), who still hasn’t come to terms with her son’s sexuality. When she learns about David she is even less approving of Arnold being a parent.

Explaining his life

The mother-son battle is the dramatic high point of Torch Song, with Urie and Ruehl in fine form. Urie is funny when he mothers David (and sounds more than a little like Ruehl), and heartfelt when he has to explain his life to his intolerant mother. At times his Brooklyn accent is a bit too thick, but Arnold is definitely supposed to be a regular, (albeit gay) New Yawker.

Ruehl is at her fiery best as Ma. She clearly loves Arnold but can’t help judging him and his “life choices.” DiFalco is quite likable as David, a precocious kid who seems to benefit from gay parenting.

Michael Urie, Jack DiFalco, and Ward Horton in 'Torch Song' | © Joan Marcus
Michael Urie, Jack DiFalco, and Ward Horton in Torch Song | © Joan Marcus

All six cast members, under Moisés Kaufman’s sprightly direction, make this Torch Song as winning as the original Torch Song Trilogy. That production, featuring Estelle Getty as Ma, ran an impressive 1,222 performances and won Fierstein Tony Awards for best play and best actor. This terrific revival isn’t as groundbreaking as the first, but it’s so good it deserves to transfer to Broadway.

Torch Song continues at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, through December 3rd. For tickets call (212) 246-2422.