*Torch Song,* 11/6/18
I saw *Torch Song* on 11/6/18.
I'd bought the ticket months before and hadn't realized that was election night - - it turned out to be the perfect distraction. This is a blue state show if ever there was one! Things got off to a good start with the music pumped into the theater, pre-curtain: "Mister Postman" by the Carpenters and "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves" by Cher, both of which I loved, but I don't ever have to hear "One Bad Apple" again. I like stupid pop music as much as the next guy (probably more than him, actually), but there's a limit.
*Torch Song Trilogy* opened on Broadway in 1982 and won two Tonys for Harvey Fierstein, for Best Play and Best Actor in a Play. I saw the 1988 movie and didn't like it very much. Last year Fierstein cut the play down from four hours to two hours and forty minutes and retitled it *Torch Song.* It played off Broadway and moved to Broadway this fall. Both recent productions starred Michael Urie as Arnold, Mercedes Ruehl as his mother, and were directed by Moisés Kaufman.
Urie was fantastic, especially in the long monologue that opens the show and the solo scene later in the first act. That scene shows him in a back room for the first time. He's alone onstage and fully clothed but communicates to the audience that he's having sex, solely through his movement. It was hilarious, a charming mixture of raunchy and cute, the funniest vaudeville sketch that never made it to *The Ed Sullivan Show.*
The play itself wasn't very good. It alternated between fresh, crackling drama and comedy, writing on a very high level, and the most tired warmed-over junk you've ever seen on TV. It was frustrating because the bad always seemed to follow fast on the heels of the good.
The best element of the play is the character of the mother, the most complex person onstage, played with great depth and chutzpah by Ruehl. On the surface she's a paint-by-numbers pushy, martyr Jewish mother but you learn that while she loves her son, she doesn't understand him or even make much of an effort to understand him. The complexity of her character highlighted the flatness of the others.
The worst element of the play is the other female character, the girlfriend and eventual wife of one of Arnold's boyfriends. She's not a character at all, she's a placeholder for the plot development that Fierstein wanted. This is not good enough. It might have been enough twenty-five years ago to write a gay play (or any other "minority" play) but the bar has been set higher now. It also needs to be good writing.