Revival of 'Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song': A period piece, with sit-com laughs

(Left to right:) Roxanna Hope Radja, Ward Horton, Michael Urie, Harvey Fierstein, Mercedes Ruehl, Jack DiFalco, and Michael Hsu Rosen in "Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song," at the Helen Hayes Theater in Manhattan.

It’s worth trying to imagine how shocking Torch Song Trilogy must have been in the late 1970s and early 1980s when these short plays were first produced and their author, Harvey Fierstein, starred. A contemporary audience can look back at the bad old days when homosexuality was a hush-hush topic, when parents were heartbroken and enraged to discover their son’s queerness, and long, long before gay marriage with children. This luxury of retrospect makes this revival, Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song, something like a very funny sit-com rather than a daring expose of painful truths. Before the play begins, the signage reveals that this is a new Torch Song — the big orange neon letters are missing bulbs in the T, the H and the N. 

But unlike most sit-coms, Torch Song contains genuine drama: characters are fully drawn and solidly portrayed; it has serious and moving moments as well as hilarious bits (the refrigerator scene was fall-off-your-chair funny), and the show refuses to resolve everything too tidily.

The star is the adorable Michael Urie (you may know him as Marc St. James on Ugly Betty), who plays Arnold with a cornucopia of gestures; when his mother, Mrs. Beckoff, played by the pitch-perfect Mercedes Ruehl, shows up in Act 2, we see who he gets those extravagant gestures from. 

The story begins in 1971. Arnold is a drag queen (“Try as I may, I can’t walk in flats”) in search of love. He visits a bar with an infamous back room; when he meets school teacher Ed (the ridiculously handsome Ward Horton), it seems like a wish come true. But alas, Ed is not only humorless but also has a fiancee, Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja), who will soon be Mrs. Ed, a role that is both underwritten and underplayed.

Now it’s 1974 and Arnold is visiting the Eds with his new romance, Alan (Michael Hsu Rosen). Complications arise as complications must.

Fast-forward to 1980. Act 2, titled “Widows and Children First,” is filled with content. Arnold has his showdown with his mother, we learn what happened to Alan, and we meet David (Jack DiFalco), Arnold’s foster son. 

The excellent and revealing sets designed by David Zinn shift, tellingly, from drag-queen dressing room to middle-class domesticity, providing a platform for some terrific acting under the solid direction of Moises Kaufman. Camping it up is left behind, and Arnold seems quite happy in flats. As Fierstein said in an interview included in the playbill, “Circumstances change; politics change; human beings do not change We all have to grow up.”  

Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, New York.