Review: A ‘Torch Song’ Burning With Emotion Behind the Laughs


Yet this latest incarnation of “Torch Song,” directed by Moisés Kaufman, finds an irresistibly compelling gravity beneath the glibness. Best known for staging lyrical but earnest topical dramas (“The Laramie Project,” “Gross Indecency,” “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”), Mr. Kaufman turns out to be just the man for eliciting the sting within the soap bubbles of “Torch Song.”

Even more important, without overdoing the tremolo, Mr. Kaufman and Mr. Urie make sure we see the vital links between camp comic postures and the genuine fear and pain that lie beneath. Defiantly quipping bravado is a suit of armor for Arnold Beckoff, the show’s leading man (and occasional lady).

That carapace has served him well. But sometimes it pinches. And as Arnold, Mr. Urie, who has become one of our most inspired physical comedians, digs deeper here to let us feel exactly where it hurts.

When we meet Ms. Ruehl as his mother (call her Ma) in the play’s second act, we experience the shock of recognition that occurs when longtime friends introduce us to their parents. “Oh,” we think, “so that’s where it comes from.” Embodied with carefully harnessed restraint by Ms. Ruehl, whose expert comic timing matches Mr. Urie’s, Ma loves her Arnold as only a mother can.


Fighting words: Michael Urie as Arnold and Mercedes Ruehl as his mother in “Torch Song.” Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

That’s especially true for a mother who sees her own image in her grown child as clearly as this one does. Which makes the differences between them — in this case, the little matter of Arnold’s being gay — take on the openhanded smack of betrayal.

The hour or so of entertainment that precedes this encounter is perfectly pleasant. It features one of the funniest simulated sex scenes ever (performed solo by Mr. Urie), not to mention some peerless aperçus. “A drag queen’s like an oil painting,” Arnold tells the audience. “You gotta stand back from it to get the full effect.”

Of course, what Mr. Urie does is let us see the brush strokes that went into this frame-worthy creation. And he shows Arnold’s ambivalence about letting others perceive the genuine fragility that he caricatures. This two-sided self-exposure is especially evident in his relationship with Ed (Ward Horton), a self-defined heterosexual with a taste for dalliance in the back rooms of gay bars.

It is at just such an establishment, the International Stud (a real place, and notorious in the pre-AIDS era), that Arnold meets Ed in 1974. Their passionate physical affair ends (sort of) when Ed announces he’s going to marry a woman, Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja). Arnold, in turn, takes up with Alan (Michael Rosen), a streetwise young model and former hustler.

The erotic and psychological crosscurrents among this foursome occupy the play’s second part, which is its most contrived and least convincing. It’s in the extended third section that “Torch Song” reveals the tougher mettle of which it is made.

We are now in 1980. Arnold and Ed have been (platonically) reunited. And there’s a new guy in the picture: David (Jack DiFalco), a smart-mouthed gay teenager to whom Arnold has become a foster parent. Soon enough, Ma, fresh from Miami, arrives to assess this awkward ménage. And while Ma is as bright a joke maker as her son, there’s no question that it will end in tears.

Featuring astute, period-specific sets (by David Zinn) and costumes (by Clint Ramos) that summon the 1970s without winking nostalgia, this “Torch Song” has been impeccably assembled, with acting to match throughout. Mr. Horton, who wears Ed’s conflicts with a forthright air of denial, is the dream straight man (so to speak) to Mr. Urie’s flamboyant Arnold.

Mr. DiFalco adroitly avoids the perils of wise-child sassiness and brings a surprising and necessary flash of pain to the recollection of a gay hate crime. And Ms. Radja and Mr. Rosen make the most of what are ultimately throwaway parts.

But Mr. Urie and Ms. Ruehl take the show to a level of emotional truthfulness that makes objections to ungainly construction feel beside the point. Ma’s refusal to acknowledge the fact of Arnold’s homosexuality is given full validity in Ms. Ruehl’s uncompromising performance as a woman who avoids the truth by making a joke of it.

You know exactly where she’s coming from. And it’s that embracing spirit of understanding, grounded in a bedrock of family feeling, that comes to the surface so startlingly and movingly in this “Torch Song.”

Like the 2011 Broadway revival of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” a later play about gay men that once seemed stuck in the past, Mr. Kaufman’s stirring production propels an ostensible period piece into a vibrant present. Emotions as strong as those brought to the surface here, you realize, never go out of date.

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