NEW YORK — Leaner — and better for the reducing regimen — Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” is back on the boards of off-Broadway, where even its title has been put on a diet. Trimmed of something like 40 minutes of material, the 1982 Tony-winning work is now simply called “Torch Song.” And with the irresistibly antagonistic Michael Urie and Mercedes Ruehl in the marquee roles, the evening feels no less moving, or weighty, than it did all those years ago.
For sure, Fierstein’s “Torch,” which officially opened Thursday night at Second Stage Theatre, has its hiccups. At times, the schmaltziness of the humor propels it into Sitcomland, and in the weakest of its links — the second of its three parts, “Fugue in a Nursery,” performed in a giant bed — the theatricality borders on tediously self-conscious. But the framework is eternally affecting and compelling: the quest of a homebody turned drag performer, Urie’s ostentatiously needy Arnold Beckoff, originally played by Fierstein himself, for the consolations of bourgeois American domesticity. For the hallmarks of a rich emotional life, for family, for a husband, for a child, for the security that comes with the acceptance of one’s tics and desires and flaws by one’s own people, and principally, one’s mom.
“Torch Song” chronicles Arnold’s struggle, not so much with his own gayness — he’s fine with that, another of the striking, breakthrough aspects of the 35-year-old play — as with the attitudes of the people who matter to him most. This is the ’70s, before AIDS, when survival itself was not yet a crisis concern. First there’s Ed (the ideally cast Ward Horton), whom Arnold meets in the first part, “International Stud.” Ed is bisexual (supposedly), a looker who is confoundingly un-self-aware, a guy who seeks out sex with other men but insists he’s not really gay. And consequently, the ultra-conventional Ed can’t commit to Arnold, retreating instead into a curiously open marriage with Laurel, played with just the right amount of bravura denial by Roxanna Hope Radja.
And then of course, in the final and best of “Torch Song’s” parts, called “Widows and Children First,” there’s the character simply known as “Ma,” who has come from Florida for a visit to Arnold in his modest New York apartment, the one containing all of the emotional baggage he’s lovingly amassed over the nine years, from 1971 to 1980, that the playlets cover. This includes both the now, more clearheaded Ed, as well as 15-year-old David (Jack DiFalco), a too-wise-for-his-years gay teenager whom Arnold has taken in as a foster child.
A word or two about Urie’s Arnold: It’s a brilliant comic performance, somehow managing fully to reveal both Arnold’s fragility and his power. These extremes are each expressed through humor, and no actor in America at this moment embodies the seduction of comic timing as satisfyingly as Urie. Fresh off a thoroughly winning off-Broadway turn in Gogol’s farcical “The Government Inspector” — and soon to play the title role in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Hamlet” in Washington — Urie displays a seemingly infallible command of the rhythm of a joke, cerebral or physical. (Just you wait for the scene in the backroom of a gay bar in which he attempts to smoke during a spur-of-the-moment assignation.)
Beyond that, his Arnold is as convincing a kvetch as Fierstein’s was. For “Torch Song” to work, an actor has to be able to make you uncomfortable by the boundaries he pushes. This effectively prepares an audience for the evening-capping clash of the titans, the battle of wills between Arnold and Ma, the character who shows you where Arnold inherited the talent for working everyone’s last nerve. Under the guidance of director Moises Kaufman, who impressively turns up the heat on the confrontation in the expertly rendered apartment by designer David Zinn, Ruehl proves to be a scary-wonderful Ma. The standoff between Arnold, who demands she accept his life, and Ma, who can’t quite bring herself to do it, is the dynamic emotional core of the play.
Ma is a woman of hilarious and affectionate contradiction: With that firm jaw, helmet of hair and Miami Beach tan, Ruehl gives the impression of being one tough cookie. And then, the gift of the real cookies comes out of her valise, and the fierce love overtakes the sense of bewilderment and disappointment. And all at once, her heart, and yours, both melt.
Torch Song, by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Moises Kaufman. Set, David Zinn; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, David Lander; sound, Fitz Patton; production stage manager, Frank Lombardi. With Michael Rosen. $99-$139. Through Dec. 3 at Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St., New York. Visit 2st.com or call 212-246-4422.