Torch Song loses some of its shine on a second viewing. Last year, Second Stage mounted a nipped-and-tucked, all-in-one-sitting revival of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, the three plays about the diehard romantic Jewish drag queen Arnold Beckoff that brought Fierstein to prominence in the late ’70s and won him Best New Play and Best Actor Tonys in 1983. Now, that production—directed by Moisés Kaufman and starring the elastic-featured Michael Urie as Arnold and Mercedes Ruehl as his formidable mother—has shed another 10 minutes and bounced a half block over to Broadway. Apart from those cuts it’s identical to its previous incarnation, give or take a few proportional adjustments in David Zinn’s retro-modular scenic design, and yet I found my response to it had cooled by more than a few degrees. But perhaps it’s not a matter of “and yet” so much as “and so”: There’s something mechanical about the production’s particular brand of glossy camp. Kaufman’s actors are hitting all the same marks in all the same ways, and if it’s no longer your first time with the play (as it was for me a year ago), you might find yourself longing for more life under the laughs.
That’s the danger with a play that stokes its engine with the kind of broad, joke-a-minute humor we’re used to on small screens in 30-minute servings — or in stand-up sets, drag or otherwise. “I think my biggest problem is being young and beautiful,” Arnold confesses to us in the play’s second sentence, and Urie leans all the way into the character’s New York-of-days-gone-by accent (“beautiful” is four syllables). “It’s my biggest problem because I have never been young and beautiful. Oh, I’ve been beautiful. And Lawd knows I’ve been young. But never the twain have met.” There are roughly three punchlines in there, and, as with “beautiful,” Urie goes for four, and for the most part, nails them. It’s not that he’s doing a worse job this time around; it’s that his performance is almost robotically calibrated. In his best moments, he feels like a direct descendent of performers like Danny Kaye — acrobatic and droll and endearingly, knowingly cartoonish, whether he’s miming a slip in a puddle of beer or dumping spoonful after heaping spoonful of sugar into a cup of tea in a state of high-comedy panic. There’s verbal and physical virtuosity to what he’s doing, and yet at times it can feel a little empty behind the eyes.
I’m not questioning Arnold’s dependence on humor, which would be like criticizing a warrior for his armor — the character is a smart, effeminate gay man in New York City in the 1970s. His wit, be it acerbic or melodramatic, is exactly what Oscar Wilde’s was: a defense and a weapon and a source of power in a world where “every book, every magazine, every TV show and movie” tells him that there’s something fundamentally not right about him, that “queers don’t matter, queers don’t love.” Drag is that self-protecting, self-celebrating serious playfulness made physically manifest. In it, Arnold strikes viewers as an “Amazon”—“not like pretty beautiful, but like mountain beautiful”—and without it he knows he’s “not so well protected.” When Arnold wisecracks that, try as he might, he “just can’t walk in flats,” it is, as always, a joke and not a joke. He lives in a society that makes it difficult, even dangerous, for him to walk down the street no matter what shoes he’s got on.
And in plenty of ways, in plenty of places, that society—with some key legislative improvements—is still the one we live in. Which is why I kept wanting Torch Song’s flow of winks and witticisms to feel a little less automated, a little more undergirded with real stakes, real anguish and risk. There is some of that to be found in the show, once Ruehl’s Ma Beckoff flies up from Florida, suitcase and string-bag of oranges in hand, in “Widows and Children First” (the third play in the trilogy, which makes up this Torch Song’s second act). Arnold and his mother share a host of mannerisms and a love of bunny slippers, and the play feels its most raw and truthful in their explosive extended argument. Pursing her lips and putting her foot down, Ruehl is terrifying specifically because she’s not monstrous: She’s not the fire-and-brimstone parent who drove her gay child from the house. She brings her son cookies, wants to make him her special latkes, wants to be a part of his life. And she also bristles in confused fear of who he is, accusing him of “[shoving] your sex life down my throat like aspirin every hour on the hour” and going mercilessly on the offensive when Arnold tries to compare the loss of Alan (Michael Hsu Rosen), his lover of five years, to her loss of her husband. “You’re not going to put me in my grave like you did your father,” she fires at Arnold in her cruelest blow, “What do you think, you walk into a room and say, ‘Hi Dad, I’m queer’ and that’s that? You think that’s what we brought you into the world for? Believe me, if I’d known I wouldn’t have bothered.”
It’s a horrible moment, only made more painful by Ma’s immediate, if not clear-eyed, remorse. “Arnold, you’re my son, a good person, a sensitive person with a heart,” she says, “And I try to love you for that. But you won’t let me.”
Urie and Ruehl bring out the best in each other—and in Fierstein’s play—but the fact that we’ve been subsisting so long on ba-dum-ching!-style patter and have finally come to an epic emotional climax contributes to that Lifetime movie feel. It’s one thing to use humor as a means to open up an audience’s rib cages so you can land the punch; it’s another to depend on a rather familiar, schticky brand of it for so long that by the time you really drop into the hard stuff, the message an audience is getting is Yes, this is the heavy part, but don’t worry, we won’t be here long.
The surfacey feel of Kaufman’s production isn’t aided by the work he does with his supporting cast, who tend to come off as either broad or flat. Roxanna Hope Radja is trying to make the most of a part whose actual psychology feels underexplored — she plays Laurel, the straight woman who marries Arnold’s great flame, Ed (Ward Horton), a man who claims to be bisexual but whom Arnold (and the play) sees as just deeply closeted. “Look, Ed, I don’t know much about heterosexuals, but…” Arnold begins one of his quips when he’s found out that his lover is also dating a woman, and the confession feels telling. The character’s—and, again, the play’s—relationship with being straight is a tangled one: On the one hand, what Arnold wants more than anything is to have “exactly the life” his mother did—with all the conventional domesticity and monogamy and child-rearing that life implies—and on the other hand, he has as hard a time mentally acknowledging the reality of a straight, or bi-, identity as his mother has acknowledging his.
Not that Fierstein makes a very strong case for Ed’s actually having any interest in women. No matter how many times Ed swears that he loves Laurel, the words feel weightless — as, unfortunately, does much of Horton’s performance. His Ed is so resolutely blonde and square that it’s hard to see exactly what Arnold (or Laurel, for that matter) finds so irresistible about him — what it is that makes this human being, for all his waffling and self-delusion, our hero’s “International Stud” (the title of the first play in the trio, and Arnold’s term for his fantasy Mr. Right, taken from the name of a real-life Greenwich Village bar of the ’70s). Rosen is sweet and snippy-sassy as Alan, though part of the point of his character is that neither Arnold nor we get very long with him, and that in many ways he’s still just a kid: “Where’d you grow up?” Ed asks him in Play No. 2—a countryside menage a quatre called “Fugue in a Nursery”—and Alan shrugs coquettishly: “Arnold says I haven’t.” Meanwhile, the story’s real kid, a 15-year-old named David (Jack DiFalco) whom Arnold is preparing to adopt in “Widows and Children…”, comes off as strangely caricatured. DiFalco walks with a kick in his step that makes him look like he’s about to launch into a number from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and talks like, well, a 35-year-old drag queen. There are some genuinely touching moments between him and Urie, but there’s also, as in Torch Song over all, a lot of hit-the-mark hamminess. Perhaps a certain amount is unavoidable—after all, Arnold’s stage name is Virginia Ham—but without more ferocity and friction under the facade, the play’s hijinks start to feel less like a statement about how gay men find and protect their power and more like a series of hat tips to an audience who’s come looking for a laugh.
Torch Song is at the Helen Hayes Theater.