Torch Song Trilogy
nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
November 30, 2006
Torch Song Trilogy is a collection of three one-act plays by Harvey Fierstein. The plays were written between 1978 and 1979, and were first presented together in 1982.
The first piece, International Stud, begins with Arnold (Seth Rudetsky) dressed in drag, speaking to the audience about his life. We then see,presumably from Arnold's point of view, Ed (the appealing Brad Thomason) chatting up Arnold at a bar. Ed is a low-key teacher, still in the closet, who convinces Arnold to let him take him home, and they quickly fall into a relationship. Fast forward a few months, and we see Arnold waiting by the phone for a call. His relationship with Ed is on shaky ground, with Arnold's neediness conflicting with Ed's unwillingness to commit. When Arnold finally gets through to Ed, he reveals he's having dinner with a woman. Their relationship falls apart, but soon they find themselves inevitably drawn together. The first play includes several sections of direct address, which are the least effective parts of the play, as they don't quite ring as true as the dialogue in the more traditional scenes. Thankfully, the next two plays include very little of it. The scenes in International Stud are bookended by Lady Blues (Yolanda Batts) who appears occasionally to sing snatches of old blues songs.
The second play, Fugue in a Nursery, takes place a year later, entirely in a bed. Arnold and his new lover Alan (Andy Phelan) are visiting the country home of Ed and his wife Laurel (Andrea Wollenberg). Jealousies criss-cross from all four people, as questions arise as to whether Arnold still has feelings for Ed, and vice-versa.
The third piece, Widows and Children First, takes place five years later, after Arnold has adopted a young man named David (Marc Tumminelli, who reminded me a little more of a stockbroker than a young street kid). Arnold is much more secure in his life, but that is challenged by the arrival of his mother (the very strong Laura Sommer Raines).
The only place the snappy production drags is in the third act, when Arnold's mother's Depression-Era tirade about him "throwing his sexuality in everyone's face" feels a little dated, but the play soon returns to the more universal theme of dealing with losing a partner.
In fact, the excellence of Fierstein's script really comes from its universality. Arnold is a proud, openly gay man, and a drag queen, but the problems he experiences are such that anyone can relate to him. Fierstein wrote the role of Arnold for himself, and, at first, it was hard for me to erase the idea of his very distinctive presence. It doesn't help that the script includes some jabs at Fierstein's extremely distinctive voice, which don't make any sense when applied to Rudetsky. Rudetsky appeared uncomfortable in the opening sequence, possibly because jokes weren't landing, but he found his stride with a hilarious monologue set in the back room of a gay bar, and by the end of the evening I couldn't conceive of watching anyone else in the part.
Director Stephen Nachamie has clearly done a nice job working with his ensemble; the cast are all fully committed, and the staging is crisp and clear.The three scripts blend fairly seamlessly. Only one thing really stands out as strange, which is Lady Blues in the first piece. Yolanda Batts does a beautiful job singing the part, but I wish Fierstein or Nachamie had found a way to either incorporate the character in the other two sections or cut her entirely. As it is, it just seems out of place.
Craig M. Napoliellohas created three separate sets that fit each piece perfectly, from a very simple set of furniture and black backdrop for the spare, monologue-based first piece, to a beautifully re-created apartment for the more straight ahead third piece.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this strong production is that I never felt bored, or checked my watch, over the course of a 3 hour and 40 minute running time (although it would be a good idea for the production team to keep the intermissions to the listed 10 minutes!). These are strong, interesting scripts, and I highly recommend this revival if you have the time.