Torch Song Trilogy has a big powerfully beating human heart. I can only respond in kind. I love this show unreservedly. It’s funny. It’s sexy. It’s romantic. It has its share of odd twists and turns. It’s an emotional marathon for actors and audience alike that’s enormously satisfying. It’s the kind of theater you don’t see every day. If that’s all you need to know then skip the review and get your perky (or not so perky) little butt over to Workhouse Theatre and see the show.
Arnold Beckoff (Max Wojtonowicz) is a grand lady onstage, as many a drag queen is. Offstage he’s looking for what many a grand lady looks for, a good man. He thinks he may have found one in Ed (Joseph Botten). But Ed is vocally (and socially) bisexual, and more comfortable bringing a woman home to meet the parents. Ed settles down with Laurel (Shannon Jankowski), but continues to stay in touch with Arnold. Laurel invites Arnold and his new boyfriend Alan (Rory Taylor Gilbert) out to their farm for an awkward weekend in the country with far-reaching repercussions. Tragedy strikes Arnold and Alan soon after they move in together, but that doesn’t derail Arnold’s plans to be a foster parent to troubled teenager David (Steven Lee Johnson). A pair of out-of-the-blue visits from Arnold’s mother (Miriam Monasch) and Ed overlap, reopening old wounds and testing the limits of family. But fear not, this a comedy, and a love story, so there’s a happy ending.
It may not be possible for me to be entirely objective about Workhouse Theatre Company’s production of Torch Song Trilogy. Torch Song Trilogy, and its author/original performer Harvey Fierstein, have been a touchstone for me as both a writer and a gay man for (gasp) almost 30 years now. I don’t recall whether it was when I was watching the Tony Awards in 1983 (when Torch Song won Best Play) or in 1984 (when Fierstein won as a writer again, this time for the book of the musical La Cage aux Folles), but when Fierstein accepted the award, and thanked his boyfriend on national television, that stuck with me.
You have to remember, this may have been post-Stonewall riots (1969) and The Boys in the Band (1970) but it was only five or six years post-Harvey-Milk and Tales of the City (1978) and still well before gays stepped into the national spotlight as something other than a dirty secret. The first cases of AIDS had only just been reported in 1981, so gay men weren’t out of the closet with a vengeance in order to save their own lives yet. Will & Grace? Queer As Folk? Ellen? Are you kidding? We’d have to wait about another 15-plus years for all that. End of the 20th century, my friend.
Me? When Harvey gave a shout-out to his boyfriend, I wasn’t aware my closet had a door I could open yet, or who’d be on the other side if I did. (Yes, I suppose me watching the Tony Awards in high school should have been a huge, brightly blinking clue, but…) I bought a copy of the play and read—no, studied—it, voraciously. It imprinted on me in ways I didn’t fully realize until I saw the play staged (for me, the first time) the other night. The friend who attended with me didn’t track on that until I said, “Okay, think of the last two or three plays you’ve seen that I wrote. Now think about all the theatrical tricks we just saw in the second act tonight.”
The movie version came out shortly after I did, while in grad school. The film is a very different beast than the play, of course, but the overall plot—and unapologetic sexuality—were largely the same. I saw it several times on the big screen, bought the soundtrack, then the videotape, and many years later the DVD. As with many of my favorite plays, hearing the lines spoken aloud again is like visiting old friends.
Harvey Fierstein shoved an effeminate gay man (a Jewish drag queen, no less) and his search for love right in America’s face—and America was surprised to find they kind of loved the guy. At a time when most of America probably wished that gays would shut up and go back in the shadows where they’d always lived, Fierstein and his characters were refusing to be silent.
All of which makes this play sound stridently political—which it is, and which it isn’t. Any play about gay people seems destined to be labeled as part of some sweeping homosexual agenda. But the reason Torch Song Trilogy works so well is that it’s about human beings searching for love, and trying to figure out who they are in the process. Who can’t relate to that? The fact that it’s men searching for love, and one of them regularly dresses up as a woman to go to work, that’s the challenging part for some people. Open your heart and get over it.
Another reason it works so well? It’s entertaining. It had been a while since I last read the play, so I’d forgotten a few things. I remembered the romance, and the yearning. But I only remembered a fraction of how funny it was, and how sexy it was. I wasn’t sure how the script would hold up after all this time, but even though it’s a time capsule of the late 70s and early 80s, it doesn’t feel dated. Torch Song Trilogy is also a collection of three one-act plays written in very different styles, but the whole thing knits together into a seamless little epic.
A strong play is still only as good as its production. Thankfully for us, director Richard Jackson and his cast are more than up to the challenge. Even when they’re not acting, the cast is still hard at work transforming Dennis Dienst’s set between scenes and acts. Seeing all that tireless communal effort again conveys a feeling that this production is a labor of love whether Mark Webb’s lights are up or down. Webb and Jackson also teamed up on a sound design full of old standards and classic voices to buoy us through the evening.
But it’s really about the performances here. A Workhouse production, by nature, is an intimate low-tech affair. (I mean that as a compliment, not a diss. Productions at scrappy little black box theaters are among my very favorites. They are theater at its most elemental.) Actors and words carry the day.
Max Wojtonowicz wears the role of Arnold like a second skin. He has a very big pair of bunny slippers to fill here, and it comes off looking like the part was written for him. He’s onstage with very little respite for the entire span of the evening. He’s the hub around which everything else spins. Wojtonowicz makes it easy to forget that what he’s doing is actually very hard. He could be just a naughty, bawdy clown. He could be a stereotype. He could be a bad Harvey Fierstein impression. He is none of these things. He’s simply Arnold, and he’s a big part of the reason this whole show works as well as it does. He’s convincing whether he’s hilariously simulating sex in the back room of a bar, throwing down in an argument with his mother, or having an honest heartfelt conversation with one of the many frustrating men he loves. (Of course, Arnold can be equally frustrating when he sets his mind to it.)
Joseph Botten and Shannon Jankowski have tricky roles to perform as Ed and Laurel. Ed’s struggles with his sexuality have consequences for the people who try to love him, and who he tries to love in return. Laurel’s valiant attempt to make a life with Ed, with Arnold still in the picture, is admirable (and amusing), even though we know it may be doomed. Rooting for her means we might be rooting against Arnold, but we find ourselves rooting for her all the same.
Stephen Lee Johnson is great fun as Arnold’s mischievous foster son David. Rory Taylor Gilbert is almost too good to be true as Alan, but that’s the point. If Arnold’s going to put Ed behind him, he needs to believe to that Alan’s professions of love aren’t just infatuation. In order to keep up with the quick-witted Arnold, Alan has to somehow prove that he’s more than just an attractive slab of beefcake. (Though, it must be said, damn. Nothing wrong with meat in your diet that looks that good.)
Miriam Monasch and Richard Jackson last teamed up on Workhouse’s searing, Ivey Award-winning ‘night mother. Here again, Monasch portrays a formidable mother figure. We see where Arnold gets his strength and tenacity. But Mrs. Beckoff’s reluctance to accept her son’s “lifestyle” is a point of conflict that sets off titanic arguments. Still, even if she doesn’t fully understand her son, this mother is still a mother. It’s a wonderfully complex and prickly relationship, full of laughs and grudging respect on both sides.
I’m told the cast is a mix of both gay and straight actors and actresses, so…
To the gay performers: Thank you for breathing new life into a piece of my past, and for introducing new audiences to this important, entertaining piece of our shared history. You make me proud to live and create art here in the Twin Cities. (Happy Gay Pride, my friends.)
To the straight performers: Thank you for approaching the play for what it is, an acting challenge, rather than some moral judgment one way or the other. It seems silly to thank someone for being honest onstage, but other actors have offered us so much less, and other audiences have had to settle for it. You will, blessedly, probably never know just how amazing it is—still—to be presented with a story in which two people are affectionate, even physically intimate, with one another where you can recognize yourself and your experience. Straight culture is saturated with images and tales of their own love stories, because they are the norm. Gay people still have to search for reflections of their lives on stage and screen, and are grateful for every moment they get. This is why they laughed. This is why they sighed. This is why they sniffled. This is why they gave you a standing ovation at the end. You earned it in ways you’ll never know.
See this thing. It’s a great piece of theater.