Review: 'Torch Song' Shows Its Strength in Timely Revival

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Thursday December 22, 2022

Peter Mill in Moonbox Productions "Torch Song"
Peter Mill in Moonbox Productions "Torch Song"  (Source:David Costa)

Has time been kind to "Torch Song Trilogy," Harvey Fierstein's 1982 Tony-winning play that is something of a postcard from pre-AIDS Manhattan gay life?

Fierstein himself ensured that it would be, by revising his nearly four-hour play down to more manageable three. His 2017 revision played Broadway with Michael Urie in the role of Arnold Beckoff — that role having been originated by Fierstein in a Tony-winning turn. Boston audiences are seeing the rewrite for the first time in a finely-tuned production by Moonbox Productions, which ends its run at the Robert Studio Theatre on December 23.

Of course, for any version of "Torch Song" (the renamed shorter version) to work, it needs a dynamic, over-the-top, but relatable actor at its helm, and at Moonbox it has found it in Peter Mill. From the moment he appears, preparing for his drag performance at a bar called The International Stud, Mill brings the audience into his confidence and, over the next three hours, his chaotic, but gay-affirming, life.

Peter Mill andBobbie Steinbach in"Torch Song"
Peter Mill andBobbie Steinbach in"Torch Song"  

At the time it was written, some criticized Fierstein for aspiring to the heteronormative life of marriage and children, something of an imitation of straight life. Many gay activists saw their political place as separate but equal from the straight world — a culture with its own rules and dynamics, which didn't include mimicking their parents' lives. AIDS was to cruelly change the culture and lead many to reassess their values in the next few years.

It would have been interesting to see what Fierstein would do with Arnold in a contemporary setting, picking up his story some 30 years later. Instead, he chose to rework his previous play into a more manageable whole in ways that allow it to resonate in today's culture. Arnold may have been an outsider in terms of gay culture in the early 1980s, but he was also ahead of the curve in his dream of finding a perfect man to share his life with. Too bad he's looking in the only places he sees as available to him — the bars in which he works as a drag performer, with their backrooms for public hookups where he was more likely to get a blow job than a boyfriend. The point may be there were no right places at the time, and the club scene, with its backrooms, was his only option. Fierstein finds comedy in this with a hilarious moment that finds Arnold hooking up with a man in the dark, then attempting a conversation with him, with disastrous results.

He does, though, make a connection at a club when he meets Ed (the affable Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia), a school teacher who identifies as bisexual. Ed wants to marry his girlfriend, Laurel (played with sharp insight by Janis Hudson), and keep Arnold on the side. How their relationship evolves makes up the play's story arc, which also includes Arnold's involvement with a hot model named Alan (sweet Jack Manning), a teenage ward named David (Jack Mullenand, excellent as the gay teenager well beyond his age), and his mother (a first-rate Bobbie Steinbach), a senior living in Miami who comes to visit Arnold in the play's third act, entitled "Widows and Children First."

Arnold is close to her, but has withheld some information for fear of her reaction. The setup is sit-commish, but when they square off over the worthiness of same-sex relationships, the moment is riveting, in part because Bobbie Steinbach commands the stage as much as Mill, which is no small feat. Steinbach couldn't be better as a woman who observes her son's life with a grimacing smile and critical eye. That Fierstein doesn't end his play on a kumbaya moment is to his credit — Arnold's life remains messy, but has a purpose.

What Fierstein does best is create a full, endearing character with Arnold, who could easily seem abrasive and needy. Instead, his quick wit and diva manner endears him. The original production left the viewer feeling a sense of completion at its end, which made it a rich character study of someone the theater had largely ignored up to that point. Today, Arnold's backstory is the stuff heard on show's like "RuPaul's Drag Race," but that director Allison Olivia Choat and her talented cast bring this story so richly to life is credit to the strength of the rewrite and the talents of the company. Fierstein may slip into "Golden Girls" territory at times with his one-liners, but his play still resonates with meaning a generation removed from its premiere.

"Torch Song" continues through December 23, 2022, by at Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, Roberts Studio Theater, 541 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Tickets: at this link or by calling 617-933-8600.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].