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Review: TORCH SONG at Moonbox Productions

Review: TORCH SONG at Moonbox Productions

An Old Tune Still Strikes a Chord

Review: TORCH SONG at Moonbox Productions

 

Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song is a trippy piece of time travel to the world of gay life in New York in the late 1970s. It is a credit to the playwright's impeccable writing and the talents of cast and crew in this Moonbox Productions staging that the play holds up and retains its relevance forty years later. Society's acceptance and understanding of homosexuals is light years ahead of where it was (virtually non-existent) when Fierstein and Torch Song Trilogy won Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actor in 1983, but not so evolved as to make any of the play's themes feel foreign or unfamiliar.

Prior to its 1982 Broadway premiere, there were three separate parts performed Off Broadway. "The International Stud" opened in 1978, followed in 1979 by "Fugue in a Nursery" and "Widows and Children First!" For a revival in 2017, Fierstein reduced the length from the original four hours to about two and a half hours, performed as two acts with one 10-minute intermission. Director Allison Choat skillfully guides Torch Song through each of its segments so that it feels like a smooth ride for the audience, even if the characters' journeys are somewhat bumpy.

Peter Mill takes on the role of Arnold Beckoff, a nice neurotic Jewish boy who works as a drag queen in a gay bar called The International Stud. From the opening scene in his dressing room, as he applies his makeup getting ready for his show, Mill morphs into the persona of Arnold while the latter gets into character. (Note: Not unlike the transformation of Albin into Zaza in Fierstein's 1984 hit musical, "La Cage aux Folles.") Ignoring the fourth wall to tell his story to the audience, Mill is totally comfortable and relaxed, often wry, and frequently funny. Arnold becomes known to us, not just by his words, but by Mill's facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. And that's just the beginning of Act One.

We meet Ed (Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia), a closeted bisexual school teacher, when he picks up Arnold at the bar with some suave charm. Their casual start does not foretell the path their relationship will take across the three acts, but it gets complicated fairly quickly when Laurel (Janis Hudson) enters the mix. Despite Arnold's ardor for him, Ed is conflicted about his sexuality and seemingly opts for the straight and narrow when he opts for Laurel.

Act Two takes place the following year at Ed's place in the country where he and Laurel are playing house. In an attempt at being "civilized," they invite Arnold to visit, but he surprises them by bringing his new boyfriend (emphasis on boy), 18-year old Alan (Jack Manning). A mélange of emotions are at play, as well as a lot of bed-hopping, while the quartet acts out this "Fugue in a Nursery" and explores the many facets of their relationships.

There is a noticeable shift in tone and emotional heft in Act Three, "Widows and Children First!" which takes place five years later in Arnold's apartment. He's older and wiser and has gained a lot of ground on his journey toward self-actualization. Although things remain ambiguous with Ed, now sleeping on Arnold's couch after separating from Laurel, Arnold is in the process of fulfilling a dream to be a parent as he is fostering a teenage boy. David (Jack Mullen) is, as Fierstein says, "fifteen going on thirty," also gay, and very enamored of Arnold. Sounds good, right? But then there's Ma (Mrs. Beckoff), a balabusta of the first order, coming for a visit. Oh, and she doesn't know about Ed. Oh, and she doesn't know about David. Oh, and she's played by Bobbie Steinbach who knows a thing or two about being a Jewish mother and many things about creating an authentic character onstage.

There is no drama without conflict and there has already been quite a bit up to this point, but most of it is secondary school grade compared to the main event. When Arnold and Ma butt heads, the gloves are off and we are in post-doc territory. Mill and Steinbach are primo players who stand out in this troupe, and they ratchet it up to an exceptional level for the denouement. Think Burton and Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and the level of spite and vitriol they express in their dialogue comes to mind watching these two claw and spit (figuratively) with eyes narrowed and neck veins bulging. Both actors let it all out with such realism that the scene is spellbinding and breathtaking. I don't want to spoil anything by giving away the issues of the argument, but it is ironic that Ma wants Arnold to have a life like she had, which is almost exactly what he wants, only shared with a man. No one wins this kind of argument, but everyone is enervated after going several rounds mano-a- mano. In the plus column, Arnold has taken on his mother and is still standing, at last, on his own.

Torch Song is funny, poignant, sad, and powerful. Each of the actors contributes to bringing those characteristics to fruition in their own way. Hudson captures Laurel's nuances, her hopefulness for working things out with Ed and her fear that she will repeat the mistakes of an earlier failed relationship. Manning is engaging and energetic making it easy to understand why Arnold and others are drawn to him. When David bounds onto the set, he changes the dynamic and provides a spark. Mullen gives him a sassy, wise guy affect with an underlying warmth and intelligence, but seems to be a shade too old for the part. The character of Ed requires an ability to be ambivalent and convincing in tandem, while also projecting the qualities of the man Arnold calls the International Stud, a man who knows what he wants. If Mancinas-Garcia achieves the first part adequately, he doesn't exhibit sufficient chemistry with Laurel or Arnold for the audience to accept their dueling desires for him.

Kudos to the design team (Cameron McEachern, set; Finn Bamber, lighting; Joe Michienzie, costume; Aubrey Dube, sound; Addie Pates, props) for imagining and creating a world for the actors to play in that evokes a seedy nightclub, a country love nest, and a safe haven for Arnold et al, all underscored by music of the era during scene changes. A couple of the actors pull double duty with Mill as the hair/makeup designer and Hudson serving as fight/intimacy captain.

As is their custom, Moonbox Productions partners with a local nonprofit organization which, in this instance, is Greater Boston PFLAG, whose core mission focuses on educating and engaging the family, friends, and allies of the LGBTQ+ community. It is an appropriate choice for this production because Torch Song is Harvey Fierstein's personal attempt to educate and engage in the pursuit of inclusion and equality. This is a play for everyone, regardless of what your family looks like. It strongly promotes the philosophy that family is not only the group into which we are born, but that we are free to create and choose the family into which we fit.

Photo credit: Nikolai Alexander/FPoint Productions (Peter Mill)

TORCH SONG

Written by Harvey Fierstein

Producer, Sharman Altshuler; Director, Allison Olivia-Choat; Production Stage Manager, Pat-Rice Rooney; Set Designer, Cameron McEachern; Lighting Designer, Finn Bamber; Costume Design, Joe Michienzie; Sound Designer, Aubrey Dube; Props Designer, Addie Pates; Intimacy Director, Kayleigh Kane

CAST (in order of appearance): Peter Mill, Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia, Janis Hudson, Jack Manning, Jack Mullen, Bobbie Steinbach; Swings: Alex Boyle, Sam Asa Brownstein, Anne Sablich

Performances through December 23, 2022, by Moonbox Productions at Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, Roberts Studio Theater, 541 Tremont Street, Boston, MA.

 



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