I have the distinct memory of Harvey Fierstein padding his falsies as he gamely transformed himself from heart-on-sleeve cut-up Arnold Beckoff into glorious, buxom Virginia Ham, aka Kitty Litter, aka Bertha Venation, aka Bang Bang LaDesh, uncelebrated songbird of the gay demimonde with eyelashes out to there and a voice that married #50 sandpaper with moonshine. Colleen Dewhurst had nothing on Arnold Beckoff, drag queen hunting for love in all the wrong places.
That exotic voice, ranging from throaty intimacy to bathetic bleat, defined Torch Song Trilogy, as well as the playwright who created and played Arnold, in a tour de farce that began in the late 70s at Café La Mama on East 4th Street and eventually made its way to Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre for a 1,200-performance run that earned Fierstein two Tony Awards and a place in theater history. That voice.
Perhaps more astonishing, the play, trimmed of time and title (it’s now just Torch Song) is back at the Hayes, in a revival first seen last season at Second Stage (which now owns the Hayes). Happily, the trims have in no way minimized Fierstein’s voice, even if we only hear the real thing on the commercials for Moisés Kaufman’s uneven but ultimately moving production.
Torch Song remains a three-part invention. In “The International Stud,” lonely Arnold (Ugly Betty’s Michael Urie) tries the bar scene and meets Ed (Ward Horton), who swings both ways and has a girlfriend named Laurel (Roxana Hope Radia). “Fugue in a Nursery” finds Ed and the extremely accommodating Laurel now married and entertaining Arnold and his studly young lover Alan (Michael Hsu Rosen) at their weekend house.
More toccata than fugue, it’s set in a big bed, where the four reconstitute themselves in different combinations so that secrets can be shared and truths revealed. (“It’s downright Noël Coward!” Laurel blurts to Ed. “How’s your English accent? I think we should use English accents all weekend.”)
“Widows and Children First” picks up a few years later. Ed, separated from Laurel, is crashing at the apartment where Arnold and Alan had built a home before Alan was murdered in a gay-bashing attack. Arnold has a ward, gay teenager David (Jack Difalco), whom he plans to adopt. A visit from Arnold’s widowed mother (Mercedes Ruehl) leads to the confrontation that is the heart of the play, as Arnold struggles heroically to gain his mother’s acceptance and to understand his capacity for love and grief.
Until that showdown, Torch Song is a good-hearted misfire. As Virginia Ham, and even as needy boyfriend Arnold, Urie is way more over-the-top in the flamboyance game than Fierstein was. More problematic, Fierstein wrote the role with his voice as natural punctuation; Urie’s seems like imitation goods. Horton, Radja and Rosen are terrific as Ed, Laurel and Alan. Difalco seems about as teenage as I am, and hardly the street-tempered rescue job played by Matthew Broderick in an early production (he would go on to play Alan in the film).
Also odd, through no fault of her own, is Ruehl as Ma Beckoff. The part was written for Estelle Getty, and lines about her (“Ma, you getting shorter?”) make little sense for the estimable Ruehl, who struts and towers in a truffle-piggy snit as Ma susses out what’s going on in this apartment.
And yet both Urie and Ruehl deliver the goods in their big my-grief-is-better-than-your-grief confrontation. It’s beautifully written and it underscores why a play about a lonesome drag queen – with a backroom sexual encounter, no less – was embraced by the bougie Broadway audience. AIDS had not yet turned closeted men into mourning revolutionaries.
Arnold just wants love, and family, and respect. It’s an abiding Broadway meme, the outsider who really just wants what we all want, don’t we? It’s Abie’s Irish Rose and Barefoot in the Park and Wicked. Some girls just want more than fun.
Arnold’s unseen best friend and confidant, Murray, knows all of his secret yearnings. We never see him, and by the end of Torch Song, we know why: Murray is us. We can’t help but love Arnold. We’ve been in on the secret all along.