Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Review

Focus on the Family

Harvey Fierstein's period piece about gay life in the late 70s feels timelier than ever.

by

comment

Torch Song Trilogy Hubris Productions at Victory Gardens Greenhouse

It's been 30 years since Torch Song Trilogy came to the stage. The one-acts in Harvey Fierstein's cycle about a New York drag queen's domestic travails debuted as separate works off-off-Broadway in 1978 and '79, then were bundled into a single package presented off-Broadway in 1981 and on Broadway the next year. It may be hard for people who weren't around then to fathom—and hard for those who were around to recall—just how marginalized the gay community was in those days. Though the Stonewall riots had catalyzed gay liberation a decade earlier, gay life had precious little representation in the so-called mainstream culture. And though gay activists were fighting for political rights, the gay community was divided over how mainstream it wanted to become.

When Fierstein, an actor and playwright then in his mid-20s, began developing Torch Song Trilogy, the hot-button issue in gay society was sexual liberation. Urban gay communities were wrestling with whether gay relationships should aspire to anything like the traditional heterosexual model of marital monogamy. But Fierstein's hero, the flamboyantly queer professional female impersonator Arnold Beckoff, unabashedly dreams of having a husband and a family. "I want more to life than meetin' a pretty face and sittin' down on it," proclaims Arnold, a reflexive quipster whose one-liners, with their Borscht Belt timing, both express and mask his sensitivity, angst, and longing for completion. Set between 1978 and 1983, the play follows Arnold from the middle to the end of his 20s, chronicling his struggle to create a family despite external bigotry and the internalized homophobia of the man he loves.

Cruising a backroom-sex bar, the International Stud—also the title of the trilogy's first act—Arnold meets and falls for Ed, a confused, closeted, self-absorbed bisexual schoolteacher who retreats from Arnold's demands for commitment by "going straight." In act two, "Fugue in a Nursery," Ed and his fiancee, Laurel, invite Arnold out for a weekend at their house in the country. Ed wants to prove, at least to himself, that he is over Arnold, and hopes to make him jealous. Laurel—whose instinctive attraction to gay men lands her in one unhappy relationship after another—unconsciously wants to test Ed's heterosexual conversion. When Arnold shows up with his new boyfriend, a pretty hustler turned fashion model named Alan, the cozy get-together turns into a sexual and emotional roundelay, full of coy competition and relentless self-analysis punctuated by the occasional seduction. (This act is lightly absurdist, performed entirely on a huge bed, with the characters changing partners for conversation and cuddling.)

By act three, "Widows and Children First," things have changed dramatically. Alan has died—murdered by gay bashers—and Arnold is foster parent to a gay teenager, a onetime street kid named David. Ed has left Laurel and is crashing on Arnold's couch, and David is trying to figure out how to get the two back together. The arrival of Arnold's loving but disapproving mother triggers a battle royale over his gay lifestyle that he's been dreading—and gearing up for—all his adult life. Mrs. Beckoff, a middle-aged, widowed Florida retiree, can handle Arnold's homosexuality as long as he keeps it out of sight; she's unable to see that being gay is about a lot more than what he does in bed. When Arnold compares his grief for Alan to her grief for her husband, she's outraged at his presumptuousness: how dare he think his "widowing" merits the same respect as hers? And when he confronts her with his intention to adopt David and perhaps settle down with Ed, Mrs. Beckoff regards this not just skeptically but defensively: she sees his desire to live as a family as a choice he's making to mock and assault the legitimacy of her own marriage. "She thinks I hate her and everything she stands for," Arnold tells Ed. "What I want more than anything is to have exactly the life she had—with a few minor alterations."

Torch Song Trilogy, a breakthrough in its time, remains a triumphant mix of hilarity, sentimentality, anger, and passion. Its crisply timed comic dialogue recalls the best of Neil Simon (in his Brighton Beach trilogy), Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, and Paul Henning—the guys whose scripts for Sid Caesar, Dick Van Dyke, and George Burns and Gracie Allen influenced Fierstein's comic rhythms. But under the witty surface lies a deep well of feeling.

Hubris Productions' new revival only offers two-thirds of the trilogy. Director Andrew Hobgood (a member of the Annoyance Theatre) has discarded the first act due to time limitations—and even without it, the evening runs nearly three hours. The absence of "International Stud" is disappointing but not fatal—the story can be understood without it—and Hobgood's handling of "Fugue in a Nursery" and "Widows and Children First" is good enough to justify the decision.

Crucial to the show's success is Ryan Jarosch's commanding performance as Arnold—whom Fierstein himself portrayed in the original production and in its lackluster movie version. Tall and gangly (and not at all chubby despite the script's self-deprecating references to Arnold's weight), he captures Arnold's comic bravado and the vulnerability it veils, conveying an awkward effeminacy that's endearing and even sexy. (In this he recalls Ted Bales, one of off-Loop theater's most gifted comic actors before his untimely death in 2000.) Jarosch uses an appropriately Fierstein-like voice, low and gravelly, that gives Arnold's jokes a wry, long-suffering quality; and being in his mid-20s himself lets him highlight Arnold's idiosyncratic blend of worldly sophistication and childlike hopefulness. Ben Osbun as Ed, Susan Veronika Adler as Mrs. Beckoff, Evan Linder as Alan, and Quinn White as David offer solid support, and Mary Hollis Inboden is a delight as Laurel—the classic smart woman who makes foolish choices. Like Jarosch's Arnold, Inboden's Laurel is one of those people you can fall in love with because of their flaws—even as you realize how unhappy those flaws make them.

Ironically, between the time Fierstein began writing Torch Song Trilogy and the debut of the play on Broadway, American life was revolutionized by the onset of AIDS. The disease helped make the general public aware that gay people were widespread throughout society, not just confined to a few isolated urban enclaves like the West Village and the Castro. The deaths of AIDS patients—and the public grief of their survivors—put a recognizable, "normal" face on gay people, paving the way for political and social gains that the Stonewall rioters hadn't even imagined. Fierstein chose not to update the script for Broadway (where it won the Tony for best play and ran for three years), and the play stands as a period piece—a portrait of gay life in the anything-goes late 70s. Still, though it contains no references to AIDS, safe sex, or gay-rights politics, Torch Song Trilogy is timelier than ever. Even as the battles against disease and discrimination continue, the issues at the forefront of the gay-rights movement are marriage and parenting—the very things that Fierstein's hero, Arnold Beckoff, dreams of. v

Care to comment? Find this review at chicagoreader.com. And for more on theater, see our blog Onstage.

review

Add a comment