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'Torch Song' review: The only sparks are between mother and son

Mercedes Ruehl and Michael Urie play mother and

Mercedes Ruehl and Michael Urie play mother and son in Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song." Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

WHAT “Torch Song”

WHERE Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St.

INFO $69-$159; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com

BOTTOM LINE A sweet-tempered but hollow revival of Harvey Fierstein’s groundbreaking play.

Nowadays, Broadway routinely hosts shows like “Kinky Boots” or “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and nobody bats an eyelash, real or not. But when Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” premiered there, in 1982, it was bold: a heartfelt, four-hour-long dramedy about a gay New Yorker working as a drag queen and searching for love and belonging.

Now the play is back in a trimmed, two-act version starring Michael Urie in the role Fierstein himself originated and Mercedes Ruehl as one of the fiercest mothers to ever prowl the stage. The two actors make for a terrific combination in the show’s second half.

Unfortunately, Urie and Ruehl’s face-off does not take up all that much of the evening.

Indeed, it’s not just minutes that have been lost in this revival, which is directed by Moisés Kaufman and had a successful Off-Broadway run at Second Stage last year. This safe production suggests but never fully summons the ache behind the wisecracks, or the dangers and the loneliness gay people had to endure in the 1970s, when the story is largely set. There is also little period sense in either David Zinn’s streamlined set or Clint Ramos’ costumes.

“Torch Song” starts in 1971, with Arnold Beckoff (Urie) looking for someone who will love him back. He uses wit as a shield from rejection — though self-deprecation about being plain or chubby sounds a little weird coming from the boyishly handsome Urie. Ed (a very good Ward Horton) looks like the latest in a long line of thwarted hopes for Arnold: He’s decent and nice but can’t bring himself to fully come out.

The show then fast-forwards to 1974, when Arnold is happily shacked up with Alan (Michael Hsu Rosen), an adorable young model, and Ed is married to Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja).

When Mrs. Beckoff (Ruehl) eventually turns up after intermission, we’re in 1980 and Arnold is fostering the sassy 15-year-old David (a charmless Jack DiFalco). Mother and son lock horns over what makes a family, and who is entitled to one, and “Torch Song” fully comes into its own, deftly juxtaposing sadness and humor. This contrast is missing from the rest of the show, especially since some of the material has been sanded off. Alan and David, both former hustlers, look much older than the teenagers they’re meant to be, for instance. A  21st century glow levels the past’s dark sides.

Of course, there are moments. The likable Urie is a gifted physical comedian and he shines in a scene where Arnold stoically endures an unseen man’s ardors in a backroom. As for Ruehl, she lets us see the cracks under Mrs. Beckoff’s Florida matron mask — we see the affection bubbling under the stern demeanor. It’s a long haul until this payoff, though.

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