by Michael Bracken
Who’da thunk it?
A relic from a time when AIDS meant HELPS and nostalgic even then, Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy in revival would surely reek of reminiscence and easy sentiment. How could it not?
Yet Moisés Kaufman’s breezy production of Torch Song – the three plays have been slimmed down to one – at Second Stage Tony Kiser Theater, plays as if it were written yesterday (all right, the day before yesterday). It pulses with the vitality of Fierstein’s script and a virtuoso performance by Michael Urie as Arnold, bolstered by the rest of the excellent cast, especially Mercedes Ruehl in a brief but unforgettable turn as Arnold’s mother.
Arnold is gay. So is Torch Song. It’s about all things gay, because that’s what defines Arnold, a surrogate for the playwright back in the late seventies when the plays debuted. Arnold is also a female impersonator, although he could be a plumber for as much impact as that has on the story.
While no longer a trilogy, Torch Song still parses into three distinct parts. In “International Stud,” Arnold falls in love with Ed (Ward Horton), a slightly older boy-next- door type he meets at a bar. But Ed can’t accept his own sexuality. He leaves Arnold for a woman, Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja).
In “Fugue in a Nursery,” Arnold’s boyfriend is Alan (Michael Rosen), a young hustler turned model. At Laurel’s invitation, they visit Ed and Laurel at Ed’s farm upstate. Not surprisingly, the weekend is a disaster for all four of them.
For the audience, it’s merely forced. It’s easy to accept Laurel as the kind of girl who’s attracted to gay or bisexual men, but it’s hard to believe she’d be so masochistic as to invite her husband’s ex-lover for a sleepover. Radja gets high marks for gamely sporting misplaced optimism Laurel calls “civilized,” but it’s the weakest sequence of the three.
Spilling over from Act I is Ed’s denial about who and what he is. He doesn’t even call himself bisexual; he’s straight. He cheats on Laurel with a guy but still won’t acknowledge the writing on the wall.
In “Widows and Children First,” Arnold struggles for acceptance of a different kind. He wants his mother, and by extension the world at large, to accept him for who he is, and Ma, try as she might, just can’t seem to get there. His plan to adopt a gay foster-teenager (Jack DiFalco) is just more grist for his mother’s mill.
So they fight. And if ever there was a pair of evenly-matched sparring partners, here they are. Both know how to land a punchline. Each is quick with a comeback. They could go on forever, but they don’t; Ma hurries off to her room.
Arnold was written by Fierstein to be played by Fierstein, and the ghost of young Fierstein still lingers around the character. Yet Urie makes Arnold very much his own. If he sounds like Fierstein now and then, it’s because certain lines are just meant to be said a certain way.
Sometimes he sounds like the Hanna-Barbera character Snagglepuss. And why shouldn’t he? Arnold is a self-drawn cartoon, after all, a stuffed animal you’re eager to hug. He’s quick on the draw but usually harmless. Urie gets it all: lovable, funny, excitable, smart.
Ruehl doesn’t appear until after intermission, in “Widows and Children First.” She’s incredible. Her timing and instincts are impeccable. She knows exactly where to position herself and how long to wait until she gives her son what for. Her facial expressions of shock and dismay are priceless, perfectly calculated without seeming calculating.
Kaufman’s direction is crisp and smooth; everything flows as it should. David Zinn’s sets – one for each playlet – range from a very realistic kitchen to an arguably surrealistic giant bed. Revisiting Torch Song is like running into an old friend you didn’t even know you missed, in awe at how good it is to see them.
Through December 9th, at Second Stage Theater’s Tony Kiser Theater (305 W. 43rd Street). https://2st.com/shows/current-production/torch-song . 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission.