Harvey Fierstein has whittled down the three parts of his landmark 1982 play Torch Song Trilogy into the two-act Torch Song, currently on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater, where the original Broadway production played. What’s been lost is mostly unnoticeable – only the middle section, “Fugue in a Nursery”, shows some lapses in dramatic flow – and the trimmings streamline the story of Arnold Beckoff, the role Fierstein created for himself. Focusing the narrative crystallizes the play’s central theme–the search for love in both a partner and a parent–and brings the humor and heart of the play to the foreground. If some of the events lack justifiable realism, who’s to complain? Fierstein is a skilled dramatist and his sense of character is distinctive.
Michael Urie’s performance in Torch Song manages to capture Fierstein’s spirit without falling into caricature or impression. Fierstein’s persona dominates the central character of Arnold Beckoff, but Urie miraculously shapes that singular aura into a character that eclipses both the author and the actor. As his mother, Mercedes Ruehl finds humanity in her harshness. She justifies all of the positions Mrs. Beckoff takes with an unadorned truthfulness and commitment to getting behind the character’s often unsavory opinions. Director Moisés Kaufman keeps the play buoyant and lively. It’s quite funny thanks to Fierstein’s wit and the physical comedy the actors add to it, and then it’s deeply affecting in the final section as Arnold and his mother press deeper into their relationship.
However, the play runs into an unavoidable conflict. Torch Song (Trilogy) was written, and occurs, just before the AIDS epidemic decimated New York City’s gay population. But these characters are blissfully blind to the impending devastation. Yet, we cannot escape our knowledge of what’s to come. This casts a dark dramatic irony over their actions which the Broadway production does nothing to address. (Notably, this same production, when Off-Broadway, didn’t suffer from this as much).
Ed (Ward Horton) talks about how he only comes to the gay bar, International Stud, for a quick bout of anonymous sex when he’s horny. The first time Arnold steps into the back room where such events take place, he drops a beer can and is immediately penetrated from behind by a man invisible to the audience and, we suppose, to Arnold, too. Urie mimes Arnold’s boredom during the lengthy sex act and it’s funny because Urie is a great comedian, but there is no mention of a condom and no discussion of consent. It’s not something these men would think about (nor would a playwright writing about it at the time), but that’s where the shadow of HIV/AIDS complicates the comedy.
It’s our understanding of what’s around the corner that makes it so difficult to submit to the unbridled sexual freedom of the first part of the play. When Arnold reveals that his lover Alan is dead at the beginning of the final section, “Widows and Children First”, it’s only the timeline that prevents his death from being AIDS-related; his brutal murder on the sidewalk outside their apartment has narrowly skirted what will befall many of their friends in the next few years.
Not all gay plays need to be AIDS plays – not all AIDS plays need to be gay plays, either – but the pall that hovers over Torch Song is palpable ending as it does in 1980, just before the world went to shit. It’s something that The Boys in the Band escapes because it’s further removed, the sex talk is less explicit, it is more concerned with the individual than the couple.
It is in no way the fault of Fierstein’s play (which is bold and warmhearted and hilarious) that the coming future complicates the play’s present. But it makes the play feel inescapably dated, as if it takes place in a halcyon time where the only danger comes from physical violence or heartbreak. As radical as Fierstein’s depiction of gay life was at the time, its boldness is diluted by the watershed of history and it is difficult for contemporary eyes to un-see what has passed.