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I went back and forth for the longest time on Torch Song Trilogy: Brittle and silly one moment, hopelessly stagey in another, urgent and acid and fierce in the next, it’s a rough beast of a play—three one-acts, initially, herded catlike into a sprawling emotional spatter-painting of a story. It’s three decades old, too, and it can feel as dated as a Flock of Seagulls video, even in the considered, judiciously trimmed staging that Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn has put together for Studio Theatre. But in that third act, when Harvey Fierstein’s noisily neurotic alter-ego of a hero finally distills the show’s themes of loneliness and want into one firehose torrent, Torch Song becomes what its title promises: a narrative lament, a ballad of pain distilled, a chronicle of struggle that heals and strengthens. And in that one brutal sequence, when Arnold Beckoff, trembling with rage and hurt and exhaustion, turns to his uncomprehending fossil of a mother to insist on his humanity and tell her that there are only two things he needs from her—love, he says hungrily, and respect—Torch Song Trilogy finally owned me.
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I’ve had to have that conversation with someone I love, someone who didn’t even know that her own struggle to come to terms with my queerness had left stripes on my soul. Someone who meant well, when she could get past the fear. Someone to whom I was unkind, as Arnold is in his own extremity, when I finally lashed out. I imagine many of us have been there; not just those of us who grew up—grow up—wrestling with our sexual orientation, but any of us who grew up–grow up–feeling alien among a family or a community or a culture that’s implacably sure of its rightness, its righteousness, its singular exceptionalism.
And so yes, at 30, Torch Song Trilogy feels dated as all hell—and as fresh as the headlines that every day tell our neighbors to hold signs condemning the grooms at a gay wedding, that urge us to boycott Russian vodka, that ask our nieces and nephews whether New Jersey or Hawaii or Illinois should consider us fully human, or whether they need not. Good for Studio for staging it, and good for Kahn for digging thoroughly into the play to find what’s still raw and nervy and lacerating about it.
It’s lovely to see Michael—he is, now that I’ve been covering him for decades, a little more than a professional acquaintance, if still for professionalism’s sake less than a bosom friend—working in such an intimate space, with material that feels so very personal. I assume he knows Fierstein (he seems to know everyone); I know he knows Arnold’s Brooklyn Jewish milieu; I know he told me years ago, in an interview, that he didn’t get along very well with either of his parents, and that his mother, who died when he was 13, was the strongest influence in his life. I’d give several dollars to have been inside that rehearsal room, or better yet inside his head, as he set about unpacking what makes this play and its protagonist tick.
But of course the measure of a theatrical production is how much of that work has found its way to the stage—and in Studio’s 200-seat Mead Theatre, the wiry, wild-haired, wide- and watery-eyed actor Brandon Uranowitz is creating an Arnold to reckon with. Aging female impersonator, widower, lover of lost causes, uncertain father of a truant who shows signs of willingness to be tamed, Arnold is one delicious challenge for an actor, and Uranowitz comes at the character hot, fussing with his unruly ’do, torquing his body into angular sketches of the character’s anxieties, biting into Fierstein’s lines with the sass and vinegar of a bona fide drag queen working a lukewarm crowd.
Arnold is surrounded by a rank of solid supporting turns, from the bright-eyed, easy-to-like fiancée (Sarah Grace Wilson) of the appealingly lunkish bisexual (Todd Lawson) who’s Arnold’s longtime hangup to the underwritten conundrum of a lover whose unsteadying presence helps run a country-house weekend entertainingly off the rails. (The latter is played pleasantly and unshowily by Alex Mills, who’ll be more familiar to D.C. audiences from his impossibly bendy appearances with Synetic Theater, where his usual style—he’s played Puck and Dr. Jekyll, among other high-profile characters—is higher-pitched, brighter-keyed, and decidedly more flamboyant; it’s nice to see him working in a more naturalistic mood.)
The lanky, punky swagger of Michael Lee Brown’s 15-year-old David feels forced now and again, and the literal-minded will cavil that he looks (and sounds, but that’s Fierstein’s fault) rather more than 15. But there’s a sweetness to the character that Brown has put his finger on, and ultimately he’s quite winning. And if Gordana Rashovich swung a little wide on some of Mama Beckoff’s emotional hairpins in Act 3, well, they are hairpins, and press night arrives early in the run. She’s got the character’s core pretty much right, and the expressive immediacy may come.
We can hope, anyway—and that’s what Torch Song Trilogy leaves you feeling. Against all the odds, given his era and how it’s served him, Arnold hopes. He hopes for love, and peace, and domesticity, and the steadying embrace of family. He’s got a big heart, and the play that holds him does too, and together they may just leave you with yours brim-full of feeling.