For me personally, so much history is packed into Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song, now at Second Stage, that the work’s immediate relevance to today’s world came as an unnerving shock. Or maybe as a stinging rebuke: How could I possibly be so foolish as to think that America had progressed socially, or that it was even capable of social progress? The weekend of Torch Song’s press performances was also the weekend when the current occupant of the White House told a meeting of homophobes that “times have changed. But you know what? Now they’re changing back again.”
Thinking about that remark chilled me to the bone as I watched Torch Song. Fierstein’s three-part play doesn’t mention AIDS — its action covers the period just before the plague’s existence became known — but the time of its first production, which marched in triumph from Off-Off to Off-Broadway and then to its three giddy years at Broadway’s newly renamed Helen Hayes Theatre, is the time when AIDS, too, marched steadily on. I associate that time with memorial services and legal battles, with incessant visits to St. Vincent’s and with ACT UP screaming in the streets because they couldn’t get Ed Koch or Ronald Reagan even to say the word “AIDS,” much less admit that an epidemic was going on and they were doing nothing about it. I don’t want to go back to that time. I can feel its darkness just by glancing over the successive cast lists of the original Torch Song Trilogy, as it was then titled. To me those lists are like a mortuary after a hurricane, littered with dead bodies: Joel Crothers, Court Miller, Paul Joynt, Richard de Fabees — handsome, gifted, intelligent men, none of whom lived to be fifty. No, I am not going back to that time. And I will not let America drag me back there.
That puts me, spiritually, pretty much where Arnold Beckoff, the hero of Torch Song, finds himself at the end of the triptych’s third segment, “Widows and Children First.” Arnold, originally written by Fierstein for himself, and played in this reworked version by Michael Urie, became an iconic figure (and made Fierstein a mainstream star) by being the opposite of a gay Everyman. That he has to confront most of the problems gay men are compelled to face, during the show’s two-hour-and-forty-minute running time, simply shows the extent to which society makes those problems inescapable. However much you may marginalize, ghetto-ize, or eccentric-ize yourself, the straight world will still be there, a brick wall into which you are bound to run headlong sooner or later. Arnold, a drag-club entertainer with a pugnacious New York attitude, a sharp-tongued New York wit, and a guttural Noo Yawk accent, is a walking rebuke to the generations of mild-mannered, jacketed-and-tied gay closet-dwellers who spent their public lives hoping nobody would notice them and only camped it up in the safe solitude of their apartments. Arnold’s approach, should he find a brick wall blocking his way, would be to grab a crowbar and start loosening the bricks.
The first brick to fall is the closeted would-be-straight man. Torch Song began its life as a brief comic monologue that Fierstein wrote and performed in an Off-Off revue, and its first section, “The International Stud” (set in 1971 and named for a bar where anonymous back-room sex is the order of the day), builds on a series of alternating monologues. Flamboyant, ferociously romantic Arnold finds what ought to be the man of his dreams: strong, decisive, self-assured Ed (Ward Horton). Unfortunately, Ed’s decisiveness doesn’t extend to his sexual identity. He wants a heterosexual marriage, but he also, intermittently, wants Arnold, who soon finds himself trapped, waiting for the promised phone call that never comes. When Ed and Arnold finally do talk, it’s all crossed wires and hangups; we don’t see them face each other until the section’s last scene, which leaves matters unresolved and both still in torment.
The second segment, “Fugue in a Nursery,” expands the duo to a quartet. Five years later, Ed has married Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja); Arnold is involved with a young model, Alan (Michael Rosen). Laurel’s urge to help Ed come to terms with his bisexual past inspires the couple to invite Arnold up for a country-house weekend. He brings Alan along, and complications nobody bargained for ensue. “This is so civilized,” Laurel keeps gushing, but the contrapuntal reactions to unexpected events — which reach a fugal climax when bits of four separate scenes are played in quick juxtaposition — make it clear that our civilization hasn’t yet learned how to deal with such situations.
In “Widows and Children First,” set five years further on, the gay-straight collision extends generationally. Alan has died — gay-bashed by a baseball bat–wielding teenage gang — leaving Arnold with an unexpected task: playing foster parent to a homeless gay teen, David (Jack DiFalco), the result of an application that Arnold, in the wake of Alan’s death, had forgotten the two of them had filed. While Arnold signs David’s report card and badgers him to brush his teeth, Ed, again separated from Laurel, is crashing on the living-room couch. The scene’s potential for happy domesticity is disrupted by the arrival, on a visit from Florida, of Arnold’s widowed mother (Mercedes Ruehl). Like her son, Mrs. Beckoff is a torrential phenomenon, at once the source of Arnold’s gutsy assertiveness and the condemnation of the life in which he’s embodied it. A lot of tension, a lot of ferocious (and ferociously funny) argument, and a lot of abortive efforts at empathy are released before mother and son can find even a small patch of common ground.
As this synopsis suggests, Fierstein’s play covers a broad range of issues: gay men’s struggles with their own identities; their relationships; their dealings with their straight peers; the way they face both an older generation discomfited by this newly open reality and a younger one that urgently needs nurturing. It dramatizes, too, everybody’s need to learn the inner strength to face down the violent hatred of those who refuse to understand. Never mentioning Stonewall or the gay liberation movement, and pre-dating the politicization of that movement through AIDS and the battle for same-sex marriage, Torch Song derives its strength from its gift for personalizing the political. All of its characters, including Arnold, find themselves in the same rudderless boat, tossed around by the waves of a sea nobody’s fully learned how to navigate yet. Generally right in what he wants, Arnold is fairly often comically wrong in how he attempts to get it. (Fifteen-year-old David has already figured out how to manipulate him.) This sense of human haplessness, along with Fierstein’s extravagant gift for wisecracks, gives the play its considerable charm. (Mrs. Beckoff to Arnold: “If I had opened my mouth to my mother the way you just did to me, you’d be talking to a woman with a size six wedgie sticking out of her forehead.”)
You can find quibbles. Arnold’s drag-artiste occupation, about which we hear little, was never famously conducive to the stable relationship he seeks, nor would it have recommended him, even in liberal New York City, to an agency seeking foster parents. Ed’s problems, after so many years, seem almost too easily resolved. And for a teen who has been living on the streets, David seems almost too happily adjusted. Moisés Kaufman’s new production, too, raises some quibbles, especially in its tendency to hurry over the early scenes. The usually excellent Michael Urie has not yet wholly created an organic Arnold; his flurried arm-waving sometimes seems to be hiding a blank moment or two. And apart from Urie and the redoubtable Ruehl, nobody in the new cast, except DiFalco, fully conveys the warmth or the depth of feeling Fierstein’s writing demands. One doesn’t have to wax nostalgic to view the original, which made stars of Matthew Broderick and the late Estelle Getty along with Fierstein, as a superior occasion. But that’s minor. The far larger point being that Torch Song is back, with its relevance regrettably undiminished, because, though the world and the theater have moved forward, our politics have taken a nasty backward lurch. Everything reprehensible and dishonest that we thought Torch Song Trilogy was helping us get rid of is, dishearteningly, new again.