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TALKIN' BROADWAY - Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul "Torch Song" Six Points Theater

May 9, 2024

By Arthur Dorman


Six Points Theater wraps up its 2023-2024 season with a glorious production of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song. The production is both hilariously funny and deeply moving, with a cast that would be hard to improve upon. The play first sprung to life Off-Off Broadway in 1981 as a trio of connected one-acts called Torch Song Trilogy before moving to Off-Broadway in 1982 and making a quick leap that same year to Broadway. The Broadway run lasted nearly three years and earned Harvey Fierstein two 1983 Tony Awards, as playwright and as leading actor, catapulting him from obscurity to celebrity.

Kendall Kent, J. Antonio Teodoro (standing), Neal Beckman (sitting on bed), and Steve Mallers. Photo by Sarah Whiting


At the time, Torch Song Trilogy was cutting edge in its frank depiction of life among gay men in New York City, including a scene in the backroom of a cruising bar called International Stud which, though presented discretely, left little to the imagination as far as what is happening. Now, most of what the play presents is relatively tame (though I admit to having difficulty watching that one scene, not because of what it depicts as for the dehumanizing effect it has on Arnold Beckoff, the play's hero). For anyone familiar with the 2022 Tony Award winning musical A Strange Loop, and numerous titles in between, or the difference between Hal Prince's original (1966) production of Cabaret and the inclusion of queer content in Sam Mendes' 1998 revival, it will not be news that we have come a long way in openly depicting LGBTQ characters on stage.


If the novelty of gay life presented on stage has greatly diminished, so has Arnold's existential dilemma–to be authentic to himself as an openly gay man in pursuit of love and devotion within a relationship as strong as the bond between his mother and father had been, as he ruefully states late in the piece. With same-sex marriage now the law of the land, it has become common to see lesbian and gay couples settled into long-term relationships in real life, let alone on stage. Director Craig Johnson takes this into account, and avoids letting the play feel dated. He allows the play's glib humor, replete with witty one-liners (sample: "I'm not against therapy, oh no. It's a wonderful way to not bore your friends."), to be relished, but never to roll over the emotional peaks and valleys Arnold traverses in the course of the play.


The original three one-acts in Torch Song Trilogy were "International Stud," "Fugue in a Nursery," and "Widows and Children First!" In 2017, Fierstein condensed the package into a two-act play, retitled Torch Song. This shortened the running time from over four hours to two hours, 45 minutes, still a long sit, but a more tolerable one for many audience members, while also tightening the narrative. The re-working merges the first two of the original one-acts into a new first act, and makes "Widows and Children First!" the new second act. The revised Torch Song had an Off-Broadway mounting that transferred to Broadway in 2018.


Torch Song opens with Arnold transforming himself into his stage persona, Miss Virginia Hamm, while delivering a monologue about his search for a relationship in which love overshadows sex. It's not that he doesn't appreciate the sex–the play makes it plain that he does–but he appreciates it foremost as a signifier of love, and not only as anatomical release. Arnold is a drag performer at International Stud, where he also makes connections with customers, because you never know which one might be "the one." One such connection is Ed, an extremely handsome, closeted teacher who promptly tells Arnold two things about himself: his astrological sign and his bisexuality. The latter is a sore point, causing Arnold considerable pain, though it is arguable that much of Arnold's pain is self-inflicted. Still, Ed remains a presence, for good and bad, in Arnold's life through the course of the play.


The first act jumps a year or so ahead to Ed's parents' country home, with Arnold and a new, much younger beau, Alan, visiting Ed and his new bride, Laurel. Laurel knows about Ed's past with Arnold, and jokingly (or maybe not) is eager to size up her competition, while Ed is dismayed that Arnold arrived with Alan in tow, as he was looking forward to it being "just the three of us." This, the former "Fugue in a Nursery" is a uniquely staged series of conversations–sometimes embellished with sex–between different pairings of the four characters. Not much happens other than to make it clear that none of the relationships among them is particularly settled.


The second act takes place several years later. Arnold is in the process of adopting a gay teenager, David, who is both charming and a handful. Arnold plans to spring this surprise on his mother when she visits from Florida. Mrs. Beckoff, who became a widow several years before, is the stereotypic Jewish mother as seen on stage and screen. She cannot help herself from passing judgement even as she claims to let her children live their own lives, and cannot deliver a compliment without revealing the back of her hand. Arnold must come to terms with his mother's views and judgments, as well as the tentacles of unresolved feelings in his relationships with both Ed and Alan in order to reach a place where the prospect of him finding what he most wants out of life is within his grasp.


I have admired Neal Beckman's work on numerous stages over the past decade or so, but have seen nothing like his tour de force performance as Arnold. Beckman delivers Arnold's droll, self-deprecating wit with aplomb (such as "Never fish for compliments in a polluted pond,") while persuasively revealing the ache in Arnold's heart, along with the courage that undergirds his continued pursuit of a happiness that his upbringing and the society that surrounds him has given him no reason to expect. Beckman also looks very at ease in gauzy robes, and downright gorgeous in full drag as Virginia Ham.


Steve Mallers is likewise wonderful as Ed, possessing the requisite handsome face and well framed physique, and managing to make the character likeable, even though his conflicted feelings about his identity and inability to face his truths make him into somewhat of a heel. As much as Ed's indecision inflicts pain on Arnold, I did not want him to go away and stop torturing Arnold, but to be the mensch Arnold deserves. As Alan, J. Antonio Teodoro convincingly conveys fresh-faced innocence that easily coexists with his easygoing sexuality. In spite of having faced demons along the way, Alan projects positive energy about being gay, in marked contrast to Ed's confusion and derision.


Charlie Peterson is delightful as David, an adolescent whose harsh life has taught him how to protect himself, yet yearning for the affection and safety Arnold willingly offers him. Kendall Kent as Laurel, the wife in competition with Arnold for Ed's devotion, displays faux enthusiasm for the sophistication of diverse sexual setups in vogue in some circles at the time (consider, Torch Song Trilogy arrived just five years after I Love My Wife, a hit musical about spouse-swapping, and opened on Broadway the same month as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas which happily proclaimed "There's Nothing Dirty Going On"). Kent does a swell job conveying something akin to Shakespeare's line, "The lady doth protest too much."


Last and in no way least, Nancy Marvy is fabulous as Arnold's mother. If there was no reason to produce Torch Song other than to give Marvy at crack at this role, that would be reason enough. She is hilariously funny, with great comic timing, and equally heartbreaking as she realizes how much she has to lose. She is not a woman I would relish having as my mother, but in her own infuriating way, she tries.


Michael Hoover's excellent set design includes a splendid revolving wall that turns International Stud into the bedrooms of Ed and Laurel's place, and then to Arnold's apartment, and manages to make the modest stage area at Six Point's performance venue seem larger than ever before. Barb Portinga's costumes pay homage to the bell bottoms and tight-fitting shirts of the era, and dress Mrs. Beckoff in apparel that reflects the times and is loud enough to match her persona. Todd M. Reemtsma's lighting is effective throughout, especially in depicting the shadowing realm of the backroom at the gay bar, and shifting between the players during the latter part of the first act. Anita Kelling's sound design provides the appropriate ambient noises and a playlist of Bette Midler's early hits between scenes, the Divine Miss M getting her start performing at gay clubs.

 

This is an outstanding production of a very fine play. It should be seen by anyone with an appreciation for the evolving rights and dignity afforded to LGBTQ members of society over the past sixty years, and anyone lacking that appreciation but open to learning a bit about the subject. If you love comedy, Torch Song is for you. If you love drama that touches the core of human life, Torch Song is for you. If you love to see outstanding performances, whatever the play, Torch Song is for you. If you fall into none of those categories, go anyway. It's that good.


Torch Song runs through May 19, 2024, at Six Points Theater (formerly Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company), Highland Park Community Center, 1978 Ford Parkway, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please call 651-647-4315 or visit www.sixpointstheater.org.


Playwright: Harvey Fierstein; Director: Craig Johnson; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Barb Portinga; Lighting Design: Todd M. Reemtsma; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Properties Design: Bobbie Smith; Intimacy Director: Elizabeth Desotelle; Assistant Director and Dramaturg: Alex Church; Technical Director: Brady Whitcomb; Stage Manager: Miranda Shunkwiler; Assistant Stage Manager: Becca Kravchenko.


Cast: Neal Beckman (Arnold), Kendall Kent (Laurel), Steve Mallers (Ed), Nancy Marvy (Mrs. Beckoff), Charlie Peterson (David), J. Antonio Teodoro (Alan).


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