‘Torch Song’: Love Yourself first, then others
BOSTON – Arnold Beckoff knew the score. Before you can love someone or have someone love you, you have to love yourself.
And when you are a nice guy but you also happen to be a gay Jewish drag queen, society at large — and quite often, your own family – will make it difficult to love yourself.
Beckoff – who goes by the stage name of Virginia Ham — is love-starved and eager to change that in Moonbox Productions’ “Torch Song,” now in the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts through Dec. 23.
Harvey Fierstein’s Tony-winning work “Torch Song” began life as “Torch Song Trilogy,” winning a Tony as Best Play in 1983, and winning Fierstein another for his portrayal of Beckoff. It was then revived as a slimmed-down “Torch Song,” winning a Tony for Best Revival of a play in 2019 with Michael Urie in Fierstein’s role.
The largely autobiographical work takes place in the New York City over a six-year period from 1974-80, and plays out over three acts.
In Act I, “International Stud,” set in 1974 and named for an actual gay bar, Arnold (Peter Mill) breaks down the fourth wall early on as he dons his wig and dress to become Virginia Ham. All he wants in life is a husband, a child and a pair of bunny slippers that fit. His wit is quick and cutting, with a bad-ass bravado meant to ward off those who might try to pierce his self-built suit of armor.
As an actor, Mill slips easily into Fierstein’s bunny slippers with both humor and heart, voicing his longing for love and describing the isolation he feels as he struggles to fit into a world that doesn’t appreciate what he does.
“A drag queen is like an oil painting, you gotta step back from it to get the full effect,” muses Arnold.
Even amidst the world-weariness and sadness, there are also moments of unbridled hilarity, including Arnold having animated, simulated, sweaty anonymous sex in the back room of the gay bar.
But it is also in that same bar where Arnold meets Ed (Christhian Mancinas-Garcia) , a handsome teacher who is very interested in Arnold but still in the closet. Later in their relationship, he mentions a woman and admits he is “unsure” about his sexuality, setting off alarm bells in Arnold’s head. Ed takes up with a woman named Laurel and he and Arnold break up, even though Arnold still loves him.
In Act II, “Fugue in a Nursery,” Ed and his now-wife Laurel (Janis Greim Hudson) have invited Arnold and his new boyfriend, a much younger and handsome man named Alan (Jack Manning), a model, to their home in the country hours north of Manhattan.
Janis knows all about Arnold, and the weekend is all about the complicated relationship amongst the four, including a meaningful tete a tete between Arnold and Laurel about their mutual love for Ed.
In Act III, “Widows and Children First,” which takes place five years later in 1980, chaos reigns and Arnold is a wounded soul There is no sign of Act II’s Alan, for reasons that will come shockingly apparent.
Ed – still vacillating when it comes to his wife — is sleeping on Arnold’s coach. A 15-year-old gay foster child named David (Jack Mullen, fine despite being a little old for the role) is getting ready for school and a stressed-out Arnold is prepping for a visit by his widowed mother from Miami Beach (the inimitable Bobbie Steinbach).
Oh. And Arnold is in the process of adopting David, and he has neglected to inform his mother.
David has had a tough childhood and abuse has been a constant companion; he has a snappy mouth as a defense mechanism, but also seems to have a sweet, caring side that Arnold has unblocked.
When Ma arrives early in the midst of the chaos, it sets the stage for a showdown. The battle royal between Mill’s Arnold and Steinbach’s acid-tongued Ma is a duel to the death by two people who ostensibly love each other but ultimately decide to take no prisoners.
Arnold simply wants one thing from his mother: Unconditional love for what he is and who he is, his mother’s Good Housekeeping seal of approval for his life – and his lifestyle. And that she hasn’t and won’t give.
All journeys don’t end with everything you want. But with the possibility of having Ed, a son and bunny slippers in hand, for Arnold, it is finally time to love himself.
Moonbox Productions presents “Torch Song.” Written by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Allison Olivia Choat. In the Roberts Theater in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts through Dec. 23. Moonboxproductions.org.