Is there a braver man in the theatrical firmament than Michael Urie? Mere months after risking life and limb in Red Bull Theater’s ultra-physical take on Gogol’s The Government Inspector and just months before tackling the most complex role in the Bard of Avon’s vast canon, Hamlet (at DC’s Shakespeare Theatre this winter), this fearless actor is stepping into the shoes – and occasionally, the pumps – of the seemingly inimitable Harvey Fierstein in Torch Song at Second Stage Theatre.
In case you don’t know, that’s the renamed, somewhat revised and significantly shorter version of Torch Song Trilogy, the now-legendary trio of autobiographically inspired plays about New York City gay life in the pre-AIDS 1970s and 1980 that earned Fierstein two Tony Awards: one for writing the work, and one for playing the lead role of Arnold Beckoff, a drag queen whose quest for love – of all types – takes some very strange turns over the course of a decade.
In navigating this monster of a role, Urie works harder – and to mostly excellent effect – than almost any actor I’ve seen in any part, cracking jokes with razor-sharp timing, imbuing certain throw-away moments with peerless physical abandon, and, above all, piercing the heart time and again as he limns Arnold’s confusion, happiness and despair.
The one caveat, and not a small one, is that director Moises Kaufman hasn’t completely trusted Urie to make Arnold his own creation. Instead, Urie seems to have been asked at times to fall back on Fierstein’s singular rhythms and vocal delivery. (In trying to imitate Fierstein’s raspy roar, he sounds like Jackie Gleason as Ralph Kramden). These moments, sadly, distract one from the show. As do the references to Fierstein’s size (always large) and self-effacement about his looks that remain in the script, and which make no sense as Urie is lanky and close to conventionally handsome. Fortunately, they are few and far between, but one can’t help but wonder why they are still there at all.
As for the piece itself, at least script-wise, Torch Song feels part period piece and part of-the-moment. The opening play “International Stud” (each play is spelled out in lights above David Zinn’s clever, ever-changing sets) feels the most dated. It’s set in 1971 in a “backroom bar” where Arnold performs, cautiously mingles, and meets Ed (a well-cast Ward Horton), a very handsome, white-bread bisexual who eventually abandons Arnold for marriage to the sharp-witted Laurel (a superb Roxanna Hope-Radja). Urie is terrific in this section, especially as he delivers the show’s brilliant opening monologue, but we’re always somewhat aware this “act” is mere prologue for what will follow.
Still, the second play, “Fugue in a Nursery,” set in 1974, begins with an unexpected twist as Ed and Laurel have invited Arnold and his new beau, a 23-year-old model named Alan (Michael Rosen, not making the necessary effect for us to invest in him during his rather brief stage time), to spend the weekend with them. What is expected by any seasoned theatergoer, however, is that formerly unspoken truths will be unveiled, two characters who shouldn’t sleep together do anyway, and the future of both relationships are left in question.
All is “resolved” by the time “Widows and Children First,” set in 1980, begins. Quickly, we discover there have been many changes in Arnold’s life for better and worse over the remaining years -- and none more significant than the facts that Alan is dead; the now-single Arnold is raising David (an excellent Jack DiFalco), a tough-but-tender gay teen who is on his fourth foster home; and Ed – now separated from Laurel – is temporarily sleeping on Arnold’s couch.
But the meat of this act, the evening’s strongest by far, concerns the arrival from Florida of Arnold’s mother (a truly magnificent Mercedes Ruehl), who comes with cookies, oranges, a packed suitcase, and, above all, a sharp tongue ready to unleash mouthfuls of unwanted (if sometimes useful) advice and constant negative judgment about Arnold’s life choices. But it is to Fierstein’s credit that “Ma” is no Medea, or even a mere harridan; she is a woman not only capable of concern and tenderness, but one who takes responsibility for her own feelings and failings.
While it would be nice to imagine that the conversations Arnold and his mother have here no longer take place in American home, but that is mere fantasy. And, even if there are fewer of these battles being fought today, the fact that so many brutal wars of words did take place over the decades is something younger audiences must be reminded of. For that reason alone, let’s all be glad that this Torch Song is being sung, and that the amazing Michael Urie is leading the chorus.