On Stage: Modern Love

by Chuck Conconi

Michael Kahn directed “Torch Song Trilogy” for Studio Theatre resonates more than 30 years later.

Alex Mills (Alan), Todd Lawson (Ed), Brandon Uranowitz (Arnold) and Sarah Grace Wilson (Laurel) (Photo by Teddy Wolff)

Alex Mills (Alan), Todd Lawson (Ed), Brandon Uranowitz (Arnold) and Sarah Grace Wilson (Laurel) (Photo by Teddy Wolff)

When David Muse, the artistic director of Studio Theatre asked his old boss and mentor, the Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director Michael Kahn to direct a play of his choice at Studio, it was a stroke of genius. Kahn decided to make his Studio debut with Harvey Fierstein’s 30-year-old Broadway hit, “Torch Song Trilogy.” In Kahn’s sensitive, deft hands Fierstein’s poignantly painful and wickedly humorous play explores the messiness of life, loneliness and the need for love.

“Torch Song Trilogy” is three one-act plays that work as a comprehensive whole. In Act I — “The International Stud” — Fierstein’s alter ego, Arnold, a drag performer in Lower East Side New York clubs, is a lonely man who has lost a lover and is carrying a torch, hence the title. Fierstein also was a drag performer who had a lost love that stimulated him to therapeutically write the emotions he was experiencing.

The play opens with Arnold, portrayed with brilliant sensitivity by Brandon Uranowitz, in his drag club dressing room applying makeup and wig. Uranowitz, in a soliloquy of self-critical lament, is in pain, struggling with the erratic gay lifestyle and looking for a committed relationship with a bisexual man who loves him but can’t break free of the pressures of a conventional life married to a woman.

It was a different world when Fierstein wrote his personal laments that were first performed off-off Broadway, and then later to Broadway where it became an unexpected hit running for 1,222 performances and winning Fierstein two Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actor. He reprised his role as Arnold in the movie adaptation.

Since that Broadway run when the gay experience was unknown for many people outside the gay community, the world has changed significantly. It would have been unthinkable then to talk about gay rights, let alone gay marriage. But anyone who thinks that “Torch Song Trilogy” is dated will find that notion quickly dispelled in the first few minutes of this powerful production, smartly staged in the intimate Studio Theatre space. Maybe most of us understand that gay love is no different than heterosexual love, but “Torch Song Trilogy” still emphasizes it is something to understand.

Todd Lawson (Ed), Brandon Uranowitz (Arnold), Michael Lee Brown (David). (Photo by Teddy Wolff)

Todd Lawson (Ed), Brandon Uranowitz (Arnold), Michael Lee Brown (David). (Photo by Teddy Wolff)

Kahn has assembled a smart and effective production and has tightened it from its original 4½-hour Broadway runtime to an effective 3½ hours at Studio. Most importantly, the running time is irrelevant. The performances and pacing are smooth working through times the audience is lost in dialogue that is wickedly funny, and other times when it evokes tears. Kahn is one of those directors who understands how to illuminate the richness of the theatrical experience. Not to be overlooked are the blues songs of Ashleigh King and pianist George Fulginiti-Shakar who establish the scene changers in the first act.

It is hard to adequately recognize the cast — all give outstanding performances, such as Ed, the man Arnold loves. Todd Lawson sensitively portrays Ed, who goes off to a marriage with Laurel (Sarah Grace Wilson) in a complicated role of a woman attracted to bisexual men who suffers the inevitable disappointment that comes with it.

The Second Act, “Fugue in a Nursery,” finds Arnold with his new, buff young lover, Alan (Alex Mills) in an oversized bed next to Ed and Laurel. They are in the same bed but through the magic of theater, it is not the same bed. This is the act where the interlocking, unhappy relationships begin to unravel.

In Act III, “Widows and Children First,” the story has now moved forward five years. Arnold lives in an apartment, smartly conceived by set designer James Noone, with his teenage foster son David (Michael Lee Brown), a savvy youth who has suffered through too many foster homes, but understands and loves Arnold as the father figure he needs. Arnold plans to adopt him.

Into this third act comes one of the highlights of the production — Arnold’s mother, the mother from hell visiting from Miami. Like an invading Hun, Ma (Gordana Rashovich) storms through Arnold’s apartment with bunny rabbit stencil borders that highlight the décor. The apartment does reflect an apartment of the time period. Ma will never understand her son’s homosexuality and doesn’t try. She is critical and embarrassed and Arnold suffers from her insensitivity and lack of understanding. Rashovich has the kind of dream role any actor would kill to have and she delivers a virtuoso performance.

Muse clearly did know what he was doing in enticing Michael Kahn to direct a show at Studio, and Kahn smartly chose “Torch Song Trilogy.” Both Studio and Kahn have won numerous Helen Hayes honors and this production should make them major contenders for Best Play and Best Director, not to mention Best Actor for Uranowitz, a young artist with a great future in the theater.

Torch Song Trilogy” continues through October 13 at The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, Washington, DC 20005, tickets $39-$85 and available 202-332-3300 and online here.

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