TORCH SONG TRILOGY, Phoenix Ascending, at the Athenaeum Theatre. It's tempting to declare Harvey Fierstein's 1983 Tony winner dated, even nostalgic. It now seems quaint that his wisecracking, big-hearted protagonist, Arnold Beckoff--a drag queen ("Virginia Ham") who pines for bourgeois domesticity--battles not AIDS but his mother's disapproval. Yet Fierstein writes from the heart--a still viable source--and for all its 70s cuteness the play does tackle hot-button issues like hate crimes, gay adoption, sexual promiscuity, and the ambivalence of bisexuals.
The three-part structure remains a virtuoso achievement. In the salacious first act, the ostentatiously open Arnold develops a frustrating relationship with a closeted bisexual teacher; in the second, a tour de force of psychosexual intrigue is played out on a huge bed; and in the conventional third act, Arnold creates a second family, defying his mother when she denies his right to be loved.
Stephen R. Roath's revival--a showcase for actors in Second City's Players Workshop--is nearly four hours long but seldom seems it: Roath coaches sturdy if sometimes uninspired performances from his dedicated but uneven ensemble. Though Matthew Gunnels is almost too attractive for the self-deprecating role of Arnold, he makes this needy, hopeful character a delightful amalgam of whiplash wit and operatic self-pity. Robert Steiner plays his vacillating passive-aggressive partner with a charm that might pass for actorly conviction. The other performances range from fresh to formulaic, never quite accumulating the urgency that might counter the patness of Fierstein's heart-to-heart. --Lawrence Bommer