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BWW Reviews: Torch Song Trilogy at Studio Theatre - More Than Enough

My first encounter with Harvey Fierstein and Torch Song Trilogy was in the spring of 1983.

On my way to becoming completely stage-struck, I had been a faithful watcher of the Tony Awards telecast most of my high school years. The Tony Awards were my vicarious ticket out of Salem to be able to glimpse the stars and shows that were lighting up Broadway, a place I would not get to visit until after my first year in college. Among the plays nominated for best play that year were Marsha Norman's 'Night Mother and David Hare's Plenty. Another nominee was Torch Song Trilogy by Harvey Fierstein.

I knew a little about what was happening on the Broadway stage due to my frequent visits to the local library where I could devour 'The New York Times' arts section, read reviews in 'Time' and 'Newsweek' and wear out copies of the newest volume of 'Best Plays of ...' I had read about Torch Song Trilogy, for sure, and to me it was about an exotic and far-away subject of which I knew nothing - a homosexual man's view of life and love.

So it was with great interest when I saw Diahann Carroll read the list of nominees for best play on the Tonys only to hear the crowd erupt when Torch Song Trilogy was named the best play. John Glines spoke for the production and ended his speech thanking his partner and his lover. (Sitting nearby, watching the Tony's with me, I believe my mother uttered "Good God, not on TV," under her breath.)

I recount the memory of that Tony night (which I was able to relive again, thanks to YouTube here) to place this play in the perspective of where I was then and where I am now. In 1983, I was a straight 17-year old who had not met an openly gay person, male or female. I knew nothing of the world Harvey Fierstein painted in his three play cycle. My knowledge and understanding of that world has certainly changed over the last 30 years. I have gotten to know many homosexual men, women and young people. While in college, I encouraged a dear friend to come to terms with his sexuality and to stop using his proverbial closet as a revolving door. I have seen friends die of AIDS, while others have lived to marry their partners. We now live in a world where same sex couples can be more open. But being gay can still be a struggle, especially in some states. We know there are countries with anti-gay statutes and the fight rages on for equality on all fronts.

Harvey Fierstein was at the head table of placing gay characters on the stage in the early 1980s.

Seeing Torch Song Trilogy - I shall call it Fierstein's opus - for the first time in Studio Theatre's simple, moving production, his work simply defies the fact that it the roots of the play are more than 30 years old. When a play holds universal truths, they last far beyond an initial run. Torch Song Trilogy is a fine example of this ideal.

Fierstein's semi-doppleganger Arnold Beckoff looks in the mirror and uses it as a truth-telling confessional, begging the audience to peek inside his life and his mind. As big and as flamboyant as he is on stage, Arnold is really just a man looking for love and not just backroom, bend over-take-it-and-clean-up type of love - although there is that, too. Arnold, who confesses to a weakness for older men, even recounts his time with a deaf lover, an ideal situation. ("He ain't never yelled at me, never complained if I snored," Arnold recalled.)

Brandon Uranowitz (Broadway's Baby It's You, national tour of RENT) is a revelation as Arnold. The actor imbues the big-hearted, drag queen with a sense of urgency and honesty while he wrings every laugh and every tear from the journey of a man who seeks the answer to the question, "I just want to be loved, is that so wrong?!"

The first of the one-act plays is "International Stud," set in the seedy club where Arnold performs as Miss Virginia Hamm. For atmosphere, the brilliant piano stylings of George Fulginiti-Shakar are joined by the mysterious muse known simply as Lady Blues - soulfully sung by Ashleigh King. After an extended monologue, Arnold, the drag performer, meets Ed, a closeted, bisexual teacher on the look-out for quick action. Ed, an engaging performance by Todd Lawson, connects with Arnold beyond a one-night stand. But the course of love ne'er runs smooth (or words to that effect) and Arnold and Ed never hit paydirt. But Arnold declares it is "enough."

During the second act, "Fugue in a Nursery," Ed and Arnold are still connected, but a year the men are in very different places. "Fugue," taken from a contrapuntal musical composition for two or more voices, is set in a large and symbolic bed at the lake-house of Ed and his new wife, Laurel. Arnold arrives with his much younger, pretty boy lover Alan for a weekend get-away that is every bit as awkward as one would imagine. But in Fierstein's clever juxtaposition of the two couples, talking, carping, flipping sides of the bed and changes perspectives, the two distinct sets of lovers mix and match in surprising ways.

Alex Mills (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Studio 2ndStage, and company member at Synetic Theater) and Sarah Grace Wilson (Helen Hayes nominee for Studio's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) are fantastic additions to Uranowitz and Lawson as the boy-toy and the open-minded girlfriend, respectively.

"Widows and Children First!" closes out the triple-act with what is in essence a situation drama-edy that has a more traditional structure while retaining the playwright's strong voice and point-of-view. Five years after the second act, Arnold is still mourning the loss of his young lover Alan, dead at the hands of teenaged gang members who beat him with baseball bats. (It would be two more years before As Is and The Normal Heart shined a light on the AIDS pandemic.) While that might not seem the stuff of comic situation, the loss of a lover or spouse is the source of conflict between Arnold and his uber-Jewish mother, Mrs. Beckoff who comes to visit. The widowed Ma admonishes Arnold for comparing his dead boyfriend with her long term marriage with Mr. Beckoff - a scene that could have been written today. The third act's main focus on Arnold's desire to finish the dream he and Alan began, which was to have a family by adopting a troubled gay teen and raise him as their son. Again, to love and be loved is Arnold's objective and "Widows and Children First!" shows that a man with so much love to give - warts and all - deserves both.

Michael Lee Brown is a dynamo of energy and stage presence as David, the 15 year old going on 35. As Ma Beckoff, Gordana Rashovich offers a nuanced performance that belies the Jewish mother stereotype. Laughter and tears are mingled with moments of real tension in Rashovich's scenes with Urbanowitz.

Studio Theatre's Torch Song Trilogy is orchestrated with precision and grace by director Michael Kahn. The play speaks truth about the nature of love and relationships and Kahn's direction allows each performer to find their own truth within Fierstein's award-winning script. Kahn's set designer James Noone provides three unique platforms for the distinctive acts to live - the smoky gay club, the masterfully creative bed for four, and Arnold's homey apartment. Peter West's lighting design offers subtle punctuation throughout the production.

I am glad that after 30 years, I have finally gotten the chance to see Torch Song Trilogy. When I was 17, I doubt I would have appreciated the play or the characters. Now, as an adult, I get it. Fierstein's work speaks to the heart and the heart is neither gay nor straight. It only knows to keep beating, especially when we have someone to love and someone to love us back.

And that's more than enough.

Torch Song Trilogy continues in the Mead Theater at Studio Theatre through Sunday, October 13, 2013.

Studio Theatre presents Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy - a play in three acts. Running time 2 hours 30 minutes with two intermissions. Directed by Michael Kahn. Cast: Michael Lee Brown, Ashleigh King, Todd Lawson, Alex Mills, Gordana Rashovich, Brandon Uranowitz, and Sarah Grace Wilson. With George Fulginiti-Shakar, piano. 1501 14th Street NW, Washington DC, 20005. Box office: 202.332.3300.

Photo Credit: Teddy Wolff/Studio Theatre

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From This Author Jeffrey Walker