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Torch Song Trilogy

nytheatre.com review by Megin Jimenez
January 22, 2009

First performed on Broadway in 1982, and later translated to film in 1988, Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy was celebrated in its time for its honest portrayal of a gay man's experience—a rarity on the stage. Over the course of three plays, conceived of as three acts, Torch Song's hero, Arnold, a Jewish drag queen, experiences love and loss, adopts a son, and comes to face his own family.

The first question when sitting down to Black Henna Production's revival of the trilogy is if the play can manage to reach us through the long decades to where we stand now: on the other side of the AIDS epidemic, the rise of the Christian right, political culture wars, post feminism, gay marriage activism, etc. The answer, happily, is affirmative. The current full production features each of the three plays on alternating nights, with the full trilogy running on Saturdays and Sundays. In the first part, International Stud, Arnold falls in love with Ed, a schoolteacher who is struggling with bisexual identity. The second part, Fugue in the Nursery (which I saw), takes place a year after Arnold and Ed's relationship has ended. The majority of the action takes place over a weekend, when Arnold and his new boyfriend visit Ed and the woman he left Arnold for; complications naturally ensue.

The ingenious set of Fugue in the Nursery is made up entirely of an enormous bed. Director Malini Singh McDonald deftly avoids the threat of claustrophobia in such a setting, staging the intense exchanges between various dyads with variation and ease. The ambitious project clearly requires a strong lead actor, and Cas Marino steps up to the task. His Arnold delivers the requisite tension implicit in a razor-sharp, jaded humor honed to protect a naturally generous heart. The other actors, however, still struggle to transcend the role of symbols into flesh-and-blood people. Body language in particular is lacking, there is no intimate ease between long-term lovers, no crackle of attraction is apparent; we must let the words alone guide us to decipher what's happening between these characters. The prospect of a triple feature is particularly intriguing for the opportunity to view Marino's portrayal of Arnold's evolution over time. The production also features original compositions, bluesy torch songs that add a subtle and sweet touch, an introspective glimpse into Arnold's vulnerability.

While depicting a character who is distinctive in important ways, Fierstein's work ultimately engages us all in the irresistible puzzles of contemporary relationships, questions of what fidelity, family, heartbreak, sexuality, love, and need could mean in a time when the constraints of tradition have been broken.