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PIONEER PRESS: Theater review: Six Points Theater’s ‘Torch Song’ features one of the best performances of the year

Updated: May 9

May 7, 2024

Neal Beckman as Arnold in Six Points Theater’s production of Harvey Fierstein’s comedy “Torch Song,” an updated version of his 1980s play about a gay man finding himself and establishing his identity in New York City.

(Sarah Whiting / Six Points Theater)


By ROB HUBBARD | wordhub@yahoo.com | Special to the Pioneer Press


When Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” hit Broadway in 1982, audiences had never met anyone quite like Arnold Beckoff. Here was a 20-something gay man, a drag queen who sometimes visited the orgies in the seedy back rooms of New York gay bars, but was actually seeking love, a long-term commitment and a family. And audiences embraced it, as did the Tony Awards (it won two, including “Best Play”).


In 2017, Fierstein revised it, cutting almost 90 minutes off its original four-hour length and redubbing it “Torch Song.” And thank you to St. Paul’s Six Points Theater for recognizing it as a too-long neglected masterpiece. Six Points is presenting a production of “Torch Song” that’s funny and heartbreaking, incisive and insightful. And it features one of the local performances of the year in Neal Beckman’s Arnold, sometimes exasperating in his neuroses, but warm, honest, endearing and ceaselessly captivating.


When we meet Arnold, he’s addressing us while dressing, delivering a monologue while transforming into Virginia Hamm, his current drag queen persona. Beckman so thoroughly inhabits the role that he never broke character at the performance I attended when an audience member tumbled down a staircase on the way to her seat. He conversed with her, making sure she was uninjured and joking about his first time in heels and making a dramatic entrance.


“Torch Song” began life as three one-act plays, and a linchpin of the three scenes we experience is Arnold’s on-again, off-again romance with Ed, a bisexual man with commitment issues. Fierstein’s script feels note-perfect in its arguments and reconciliations, witty banter and sad silences as it takes us to a farmhouse weekend to which Arnold and Ed bring new partners of different genders.


Finally, we meet the family, as Arnold introduces his perpetually disapproving mother to the domestic life he’s fashioned by taking in a foster child. It’s during that final act that “Torch Song” moves beyond being an engaging character study and becomes a powerful, deeply moving life lesson.


With his deft direction, Craig Johnson has clearly invited his six actors to make their characters as genuine and relatable as possible. And each performance engages, from Steve Mallers’ uncertain Ed to Nancy Marvy’s layered take on Arnold’s mother, who provides the spark for the play’s climactic conflagration. And Beckman doesn’t steal every scene, for Kendall Kent matches him in energy and emotional openness as Ed’s partner, Laurel.


While Six Points’ stage at the Highland Park Community Center is a small one, director Johnson and set designer Michael Hoover make it a disarmingly intimate setting for this story, particularly when the wall spins to plunge us into a farmhouse scene that takes place entirely within a king-sized bed that the four characters occupy “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice”-style, if any readers remember that 1969 movie.

From left: Kendall Kent as Laurel;  J. Antonio Teodoro, standing, as Alan; Neal Beckman, sitting on bed, as Arnold; and Steve Mallers, sitting on floor, as Ed in Six Points Theater’s production of Harvey Fierstein’s comedy “Torch Song.” (Sarah Whiting / Six Points Theater)


“Torch Song” is such a terrific play that you might find yourself contemplating why we haven’t seen productions of it more often. A forbidding length? Subject matter for which producers thought audiences unprepared? Whatever the case, Six Points deserves kudos for having it mark the company’s 30th anniversary (it was previously known as Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company). And for allowing the always impressive Beckman the breakout performance he’s earned.

Six Points Theater’s ‘Torch Song’

When: Through May 19

Where: Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Pkwy., St. Paul

Tickets: $40-$15, available at 651-647-4315 or sixpointstheater.org

Capsule: A neglected masterpiece of a play receives an excellent staging.

Rob Hubbard can be reached at wordhub@yahoo.com.


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