I’ve long differentiated actors from performers.
An actor can be likened to chameleons, repressing their personal individuality for the sake of bringing the character to life with specific characterizations that often bear no superficial similarities to the actor’s past work.
A performer’s performances, on the other hand, tend to be defined by the sheer force of that performer’s onstage personality, which often shines through no matter the role.
Michael Urie is a shining example of a theatrical performer. Regardless of the part he’s playing, audiences familiar with his previous turns will always see Michael Urie inside his various costumes.
Neither of these two types of thespians are inherently better, and very few perfectly conform to one or the other. It’s more useful to view performing and acting as two ends of an admittedly-arbitrary spectrum, with the effectiveness of both skills coming down mostly to smart casting. Some characters call for performing, while others for acting, and often the same one demands both depending on the scene.
Michael Urie’s distinct brand of performing would seem a perfect fit for Arnold, the beloved lead in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, a play with performing very much on its mind. Yet in Second Stage’s current revival — retitled Torch Song to mark Fierstein’s recent edits to his original text, but retaining its three-act structure — Urie’s strict adherence to his customarily-loose performance style largely prevents this Tony Award-winning drama from successfully making the leap to the 21st century.
Any revival of such a historically-significant play must make a case for its lasting impact and relevance. Back in 1982, Torch Song Trilogy was rightfully heralded for being one of the first major works to probe gay relationships in a thoughtful and serious manner. Since a plethora of others subsequently took up that (my apologies) torch — many of which were inspired by it — a modern staging of the play must stand on its own merits. Audiences should never forget its vital contributions to the progress of theatre — and, by extension, society — but revisiting Torch Song now allows audiences to view it with fresh artistic eyes.
For the most part, the play still holds up. All of Fierstein’s writing — and interviews, and performances — showcase a deft ability at crafting resonantly hilarious and timeless one-liners whose expert humor stems from sharp observations. He impressively modulates the dialogue to find different voices for his characters, which is integral because the play fails to subtextually explore a sufficient amount of substantive ideas. Its primary focus is on the development of the characters lives spanning most of the 1970s into the early 80s.
Yet here Second Stage’s revival falls short. Since the play presents little deeper meaning to unpack, the characters by design must almost singlehandedly carry the weight of the entire work. Pulling this off requires a top-tier cast, but the ensemble — with one exception (more on her in a bit) — proves merely adequate. The supporting players come across more like types than living and breathing people, especially Ward Horton as Ed, who’s cast as the love of Arnold’s life. Though Horton may have been consciously trying to balance Urie’s extreme energy, he ultimately makes almost no impact. And since the revival literally positions their relationship as the foundation of the piece (more on this in a bit as well), it’s a flimsy base that cannot support most of the production.
Plus, the actors’ stiffly shallow performances call even more attention to the play’s verbosity; even though Fierstein cut out a lot, most scenes still run too long. If the cast created real characters as opposed to caricatures, the audience wouldn’t mind spending all the time in the world with them. But since they don’t, the excessive length becomes even more obvious. And since the play nor production strive for realism, it can’t be used to justify such meandering conversations.
Most crucially, the men lack chemistry with each other, which torpedoes a lot of the desired emotional effect, all the more damning given the paucity of intellectual context. For instance, Arnold’s grief in the third act registers as hollow, either due to no sparks between Urie and Michael Rosen, and/or because of their relationship being underwritten.
(Caveat: it’s very possible that Fierstein deliberately wanted the audience to feel unsatisfied with this relationship, a subtle indicator that even art like this that purports to chronicle a portion of a life in full cannot provide a complete picture. Or, this shortchanging in the text in a way captures the all-too-brief time that life and American society allowed the two to be together. Or am I being too forgiving of the play, which contains no other signs of these sorts of dramaturgical decisions?)
Which brings us back to Michael Urie. In theory, his highly performative style perfectly matches Arnold’s disposition, who desperately tries to entertain himself and others to mask his entrenched loneliness. Urie’s performances have always contained hints and traces of camp antics — most recently in The Red Bull Theater’s production of The Government Inspector, in which he played the title fop — so of course he’s an obvious choice to play a literal drag queen, one who utilizes his onstage grandeur to put forth an air of external confidence offstage. He constantly draaaaws out words, lowers the pitch of his voice a few octaves at the end of sentences, whisks the hair out his eyes, gesticulates everywhere, and just seems to be in a perpetual state of manic performance.
Are you confused if I’m talking about Urie in general or specifically regarding his turn in Torch Song? If so — good, because he’s deployed all of these tics in every performance of his I’ve seen, with varying results. Kudos to him (and casting directors) for picking roles that can justify such behavior, but each time becomes a case of diminishing returns. Since Arnold is the audience’s window into Torch Song, he must feel like an organic person — and not a borrowed rehash of other performances — to emotionally engage to the degree that this character-based play necessitates.
Urie would’ve benefited from taking a page out of his third act co-star’s book. Mercedes Ruehl plays his mom, and she changes her usual physicality to imbue her performance with a lot of Urie’s shtick, visual connecting mother and son as more than just unrelated performers sharing a stage. Yet as Act Three descends into darker territory, she slowly sheds these quirks, naturalistically revealing her insecure self that warrants such projections. Since Urie basically never tones down his constant emoting, Arnold’s heartbreaking yet eventually uplifting arc cannot be entirely felt. There’s a reason that the most heart-wrenching moment belongs to Ruehl; Fierstein wisely avoids a crowd pleasing conclusion by not granting redemption to her character. She doesn’t stick around; they all didn’t live happily ever after. Fierstein understands that not everyone has a place in a more progressive future, as hard as that may be to live with, or in this case without a mom.
Besides Ruehl, scenic designer David Zinn appears to be the only other person who plumbed the depths of the play in his work. Moisé Kaufman’s direction, and most of the design team’s input — particularly Clint Ramos’ costume design — is standard. But Zinn’s sets, the structures of the production, mirror Torch Song‘s dramatic structure. The first act — “International Stud” — depicts Arnold and Ed as lonely souls searching for a home in someone else. As such, they literally walk atop roving platforms, which emphasize the performative elements of the piece. The lack of more detailed sets highlights the bare emptiness of their early lives.
Even after they find each other — lending their existences a bit more concrete meaning — various factors prohibit them from totally forging lives together in Act Two, “Fugue in a Nursery.” Thus, its set includes a few more concrete details, but the sole setting generates claustrophobia that symbolizes how the characters feel stuck in their own lives and with each other. Finally, once Arnold’s future becomes clearer post-adoption in the third act, “Widows and Children First,” the set painstakingly recreates a real apartment, indicating that Arnold’s life is now as full as the prop-filled set with what he’s always wanted: companionship. And the marquee signs boasting the title of each act further reinforces the importance of performative showmanship throughout the play.
Ruehl and Zinn clearly wrestled with Torch Song to create work specifically rooted in Fierstein’s world. If only Urie had put as much thought into his acting, relying less on his usual performing.