Friday, May 10, 2024

"Torch Song" at Six Points Theater

A few years ago, Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein wrote a new adaptation of his 1982 play Torch Song Trilogy (for which he won two of his four Tonys), cutting it down to about two and a half hours from the original four. Six Points Theater is presenting this version, that still feels like three distinct but related one-act plays. It's a beautiful and heart-wrenching story about a gay man navigating his career as a drag queen, dating, relationships, and family. Full of heart and humor and featuring a lovely and heartfelt performance by Neal Beckman, this Torch Song is a joy to experience. See it at Six Points Theater (in the Highland Park Community Center) now through May 19.

Originally written as three plays, it's almost like watching a three-episode limited series about a group of complex, interesting characters. In The International Stud, we meet Arnold in 1974, who has several monologues about his life and work as a drag queen. We watch as he meets Ed, a bisexual who is also dating a woman. Fugue in a Nursery jumps forward about a year, when Arnold and his new young boyfriend Alan visit Ed and his now fiancĂ© Laurel at their country home. The play takes place entirely in a huge bed, where various pairs of characters converse and... other things. After intermission, the story concludes with Widows and Children First about five years later. Arnold is fostering and planning to adopt a 15-year-old boy named David, and still in a complicated relationship with Ed. Into this equation comes a visit from Arnold's mother, with whom he also has a complicated relationship. The four characters have some tough conversations, and startling admissions, on their way to building a better life.

Neal Beckman as Arnold in drag (photo by Sarah Whiting)
Neal Beckman is always fun to watch, appearing in supporting roles on stages all around town. But this might be the first time I've seen him in a lead role, and he's just wonderful as Arnold (the Harvey Fierstein role). So honest and vulnerable, but also really funny, as believable in Arnold's anger and grief as he is in his joy for life. He doesn't do a Harvey Fierstein impression, but he has just enough of the gravelly voice mixed with high falsetto to hint at it. The only other actor to appear in more than one of the three plays is Steve Mallers. The #TCTheater newcomer is charming as Ed, making us see why Arnold falls for him, but also infuriating when Ed is not so nice to our Arnold. In part two, Kendall Kent and J. Antonio Teodoro are delightful as the other partners Laurel and Alan, literally jumping into the bed with gusto, and also having emotional arcs of their own. In the finale, Charlie Peterson is an adorably mischievous David, and Nancy Marvy is simply perfection as Arnold's tough love mother.

Fugue in a Nursery (Kendall Kent, J. Antonio Teodoro,
Neal Beckman, and Steve Mallers, photo by Sarah Whiting)
Directed by #TCTheater vet Craig Johnson, the play is of course well staged and well paced, with equal emphasis on the humor and poignancy of the piece. Michael Hoover's versatile set transforms from a nightclub in part one, with a quick rotation to reveal the bed of part two, and an intermission transformation to Arnold's part three apartment. Characters are dressed in fun '70s costumes and pajamas, and the pre-show '70s soundtrack and songs played within the play are well-chosen (costume design by Barb Portinga, sound design by Anita Kelling).

Forty years after the original premiered, with LGBTQ+ rights seeming moving backwards, Torch Song's themes are still relevant. Showing queer people and drag queens not as an "other," but as complex, messy, fully rounded, loving humans is a great way to engender empathy and remind us that we're more alike than we are different.