Expressing this idea on a mainstream stage was a far more exotic pursuit in 1982, when “Torch Song Trilogy” opened at Broadway’s Little Theatre (later rechristened the Helen Hayes), with Fierstein playing Arnold and Estelle Getty as his tsunami-on-rye of a Jewish mother. The play would go on to win the Tony. But even if the B.R. world (Before RuPaul) that Fierstein introduced us to no longer looks so unfamiliar, the feelings the play evokes, about being the other and yet longing for the conventional consolations of family and self-respect, remain affectingly on point.
Director Michael Kahn, best known in these parts as artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, is moonlighting for the occasion at Studio Theatre, where his “Torch Song” finds a most comfortable and invigorating home. Resistant audience members may experience Arnold’s heart-on-his-sleeve dramatizing as too much self-ennobling opera. (For more of the same, see Fierstein’s books for the Broadway musicals “La Cage aux Folles” and the current hit “Kinky Boots.”) My heart, however, went out to Arnold. It’s the ferocity of his conviction that sustains Fierstein’s main character, that raises him to a level of courageousness and the play to more profound status than that of “Will and Grace”-like situation comedy.
Uranowitz surely wasn’t even a glimmer in his parents’ eyes when the three interlocking playlets of “Torch Song” were being assembled by Fierstein in the late 1970s. And yet the actor manages to contain in his compact frame all the sturm und drang and striving for pleasures that Arnold seeks in his life — a life, he explains, in which all he yearns for is the kind of intimacy and stability that was achieved by his mother with his late father.
This monster mom, by the way, is portrayed here with alarming authenticity by Gordana Rashovich, whose Mrs. Beckoff materializes in Manhattan from Florida in the final hour of “Torch Song” to harangue Arnold with judgmental tirades and, after ingesting Arnold’s suffering, to bring us to tears. That in her red bouffant hairdo and white disc-like earrings she looks exactly like my Grandma Lily has to be mentioned, because in the deliciously high-dudgeon performance she delivers, Rashovich is so uncannily believable, I expected her to step into the audience and present me with a kugel preserved in Tupperware.
The confrontation between Arnold and Mrs. Beckoff takes place in “Widows and Children First!,” the third of the three parts of “Torch Song” and by far the best. Over the course of six years, we watch Arnold’s growth from forlorn drag queen — “With a voice and face like this, I can always drive a cab,” he cracks — to indefatigable head of an all-male household. There, he’s rearing David (a suave Michael Lee Brown), a 15-year-old gay foster child he’s determined to smother with care. Hovering forever in the margins of Arnold’s life is the serially, sexually confused Ed (Todd Lawson), a straight-seeming teacher terrified by Arnold’s confidence in his own gayness.
The play presents narrative challenges: the intrusion of a blues singer (Ashleigh King) in Part One, “The International Stud,” is a device that Kahn hasn’t figured out how to enliven. Part Two, “Fugue in a Nursery,” set in the upstate New York country home of Ed and deluded wife-to-be Laurel (Sarah Grace Wilson), occurs in a giant bed and contrived in ways that invite unflattering comparison to Noel Coward. (This sequence also introduces us to Arnold’s young lover Alan, embodied agreeably by Alex Mills.)
You can see, though, why Fierstein wanted to portray his own character; Arnold is the epic hero of “Torch Song,” a play that would reveal to mainstream audiences that a gay hero could be filled with every bit as much complexity and contradiction as a straight one. And he’d get to deliver a whole bunch of great, bitchy punchlines to boot. That, of course, is why casting Uranowitz was so crucial, too. With a trace of Mario Cantone here, a bit of Chris Sarandon in “Dog Day Afternoon” there, his Arnold is both effortlessly hilarious and always aware of how askance some part of the world might be gazing at him.
Kahn, steeped as a younger director in the plays of Tennessee Williams, clearly understands who this smart, proud, wounded man is. That has to be a major factor in why the emotional zing of this “Torch Song” is unleashed so effectively in Part Three. The design elements of the production are certainly up to snuff, but it’s the performer revealing for us the facets of Arnold’s pain and potential for happiness that really light up this stage.
Torch Song Trilogy
by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Michael Kahn. Sets, James Noone; lighting, Peter West; costumes, Frank Labovitz; sound and music direction, Eric Shimelonis; projections, Adrian Rooney; pianist, George Fulginiti-Shakar. About 31
2 hours. Through Oct. 13 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. www.studiotheatre.org.