Torch Song Trilogy

26 June 2012

My review of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s revival of Harvey Fierstein’s modern gay classic, Torch Song Trilogy.

In a rather lovely and unexpected blast from the past, I had a last-minute invitation to see the Menier Chocolate Factory’s new stage production of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy.

It’s been almost twenty years since I first watched Harvey Fierstein’s film version of the play, when I fell in love with Fierstein’s gravel-voiced drag queen Arnold, who ricochets between feckless romanticism and world-weary cynicism in his search for love, marriage and fatherhood. Fierstein wrote the plays in the period between 1978 and 1981, chronicling the end of the brief but much-mythologised decade of American gay history that saw a flowering of gay liberation and sexual freedom, just before the devastation caused by the AIDS epidemic and the rise of anti-gay Reaganist politics in the 1980s.

The film came almost a decade later, in 1988, but I didn’t see it until around 1996, since gay-themed films didn’t tend to get extended cinema releases in New Zealand in those days. It was one of the first gay-themed films I’d ever seen, and I thrilled to Fierstein’s caustic wit and insistence on the truth of his sexuality, as well as his hyper-sensitivity to every criticism and slight he registered about being gay in a homophobic world. I’ve still not forgotten the 3rd act boxing match between Arnold and his mother, which is a minor classic in the theatrical pantheon of dysfunctional mother-gay son relationships, played to the hilt by Fierstein and fellow scenery chewer Anne Bancroft. Though it was a difficult scene for me to watch, Fierstein’s tracking of how love and hate can co-exist in the same moment where family are concerned, and Arnold’s insistence on being accepted for his big gay self in the face of parental rejection, felt like an important new form of family drama that hadn’t been portrayed before. It also provided an interesting preview into my own coming out drama with my parents later that year.

I wondered how a revival of Torch Song Trilogy would play in our modern gay culture of Grindr, metrosexuals, civil partnerships, and whether it would appear at best as a charming period piece of the disco-lit 1970s, or at worst as embarrassingly outdated and irrelevant. On its Broadway release in the early 1980s, Fierstein was criticised by some radical gay commentators for having a gay protagonist who aspired to the heterosexual norms of a monogamous relationship and children. As the Independent’s Paul Taylor quipped in his review of the show, “Things now look rather different in a world of civil partnerships and surrogacy.”

Indeed, the revival works beautifully, and if anything seemed more in synch with the current debates on legalising gay marriage. While the writing sometimes feels too strident and jarring, in the slightly too-obvious and presentational manner of a TV sitcom, it maintains its power to cut to the quick of the romantic disappointment and family rejection that many gay men still struggle with.

The running joke of Torch Song Trilogy is that Arnold is both a product of and out of sorts with his own times. He longs for grand romance and a loving boyfriend and children, but ends up settling for an on-again off-again relationship with Ed, a married bisexual teacher. He trumpets loudly about the virtues of monogamy, but a few metres later is found trawling through the backrooms of sex clubs with the lingering irritation of someone who knows he’s hunting for what he doesn’t really want.

In the final act, the incompatibility of his many existences – or his attempts to bring his various desires together, hit a big ugly snag, as he goes into battle with his Jewish Mother from Hell over his fitness to be a foster parent to a teenage gay runaway. Mother and son (who are, naturally, mirror images of each other – loud, passionate, self-dramatising and eternally victimised) trade bitter insults and accuse each other of not being what the other expected.  and eventually part, knowing that they love each other but can’t be in each others’ lives. By the end of the piece, Arnold is alone, with artefacts of his loved ones around him, declaiming sadly but forthrightly that self-acceptance is the only way forward and that there’s no room for anyone in his life who can’t love him as he is. It’s not the subtlest of realisations – like Fierstein’s foghorn voice, TST drives home its emotional catharsis with a sledgehammer – but there’s something enduringly appealing about a work that paints its Gayness with a capital G without any recourse to self-censorship.

The Menier’s production, directed by actor Douglas Hodge, played it fairly straight (for lack of a better expression), with loud showy performances, and some rather too self-conscious choreography of the middle sequence, which is staged on a giant marital bed, and a sprinkling of torch songs in between scenes sung by members of the cast and an on-stage harpist. Perhaps this is the best (or only?) way to perform Fierstein’s writing, which is fairly minimal on subtext.

As Arnold, American musical theatre actor David Bedella has an appropriately gravelly Marge Simpson voice, and a nice appreciation of his character’s vulnerability, though he’s possibly too handsome and athletic to play the awkward, schmucky, self pitying Arnold. There are two quite bad performances from Joe McFadden as the bisexual Ed and Laura Pyper as his seriously self-deluded wife Laurel: both actors go through the motions of their roles and look pretty in their underwear, but never quite connect with their characters’ tangled motivations or emotional self-deception.

The most interesting casting move was Tom Rhys Harries, a blue-eyed blonde cutie who plays Alan, Arnold’s much younger and prettier boyfriend. In the film, Alan was played by the adorable Matthew Broderick, fresh from his Ferris Bueller success and played with puppyish likeability. Rhys Harries’ performance is more nuanced and ambiguous: Alan comes across as a pretty but slightly mercenary hustler, who’s used to using his good looks as his calling card, just smart enough to know he’s onto a good thing with Arnold, but not quite bright enough to feel secure in himself. His cagey interactions with Arnold lend the middle section a welcome darkness and complexity. Rather than just seeing Arnold as deliriously in love with the man of his dreams, he’s revealed as a more typical kind of gay man, who settles for an unchallenging relationship with a younger man to whom he’s more father than lover, and who pretends not to notice the cracks.

As Mother, Sara Kesteleman plays the role in the only way possible – full-throttle Jewish Mother stereotype. The final mother-son showdown still packs a punch, but somehow the performances miss the inherent ugliness of the scene, and the sense that Mother’s hateful words over the years have inflicted permanent damage on Arnold. And there’s an entertaining performance from Perry Millward as David, Arnold’s big haired hyperactive adoptive son.

In the end, it was great to see a work from the gay canon being performed live, and to check in on what has and hasn’t changed in 30 years of gay history. Fierstein’s themes of the search for love and the need for self-acceptance still ring true all these years later, and there’s a touching sense of nostalgia for the good old bad old days when, as New York Times critic Ben Brantley opined nostalgically in his review:

Even the group-groping backroom bars here registers as touchingly innocent, summoning a pre-AIDS, pre-Internet moment in gay culture when hook-ups were made in person, condoms had yet to become a life-saving necessity and outrageous guys like Arnold were not yet shrunken to prime-time proportions.

It’s extraordinary to think that urban post-closet gay culture is now old enough to be able to revisit previous generations of cultural artefacts. This one’s definitely a keeper.

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