Follow by Email

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Torch Song (Second Stage Theater)


By Harry Forbes

No longer billed as “Torch Song Trilogy,” and discreetly abridged (not that you’d readily know it), while still retaining its basic triptych format (albeit in two acts), Harvey Fierstein’s award-winning and groundbreaking 1982 play receives a fine revival in Mois├ęs Kaufman’s spot-on staging.

Versatile Michael Urie, fresh from all his superb clowning in Gogol’s “The Government Inspector” at Red Bull Theater, here takes on the role of self-deprecating drag queen Arnold who longs for love and domesticity, the part so memorably created by Fierstein himself on stage and screen. And there’s a flawless ensemble comprising Ward Horton as Arnold’s first great love Ed (Ward Horton), immensely likable Roxanna Hope Radja as the not-so-deluded young woman Ed decides to marry, Michael Rosen as the young former hustler and model Alan who becomes Arnold’s second great love, Mercedes Ruehl as Arnold’s loving but overbearing mother, and Jack DiFalco as Arnold’s feisty adopted son.

The first portion, set in 1971, charts Arnold’s head-over-heels encounter with the sexually conflicted Ed and their breakup six months later. The second (now 1974) is played on a giant bed (scenic design by David Zinn) and presents various pairings (sexual and conversational) among Arnold, Ed, Laurel and Alan. And the third and best revolves around Ma coming up from Florida in 1980 to visit Arnold in his New York apartment where one than one surprise await her. The no-holds-barred confrontation between Arnold and Ma in that act has lost none of its power to sting. In fact, period piece though this is, “Torch Song” plays far less dated than one might have predicted. its themes and conflicts still resonate.

At times, Urie can’t help but channeling Fierstein -- the dialogue, after all, bears the husky-voiced actor/author’s own cadences -- but Urie’s portrayal is very much his own, and his comic timing enhances many scenes, as for instance, when he mimes the antics of a salacious backroom bar encounter. Ruehl, for her part, has the perfect sardonic delivery, successfully navigates the fine line between loving and hateful mother, and considerably enlivens the third act in which Arnold, in the aftermath of tragedy, must finally come to terms with his future.

Horton is appealing believable in his spectacularly conflicted role while DiFalco brings a bracing edge to his part that undercuts any sentimentality.

Clint Ramos’s costumes, like Zinn’s sets, evoke the 1970s perfectly, enhanced by David Lancer’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s sound designs.

(Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street; 212-246-4422 or 2st.com; through December 9)

Friday, November 3, 2017

M. Butterfly (Cort Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Director Julie Taymor’s compelling revival of David Henry Hwang’s Tony winner (its first on Broadway) features two bravura performances that compare very favorably with our memories of the acclaimed originators John Lithgow and B.D. Wong as, respectively, Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat, and Song Liling, a cross-dressing Chinese opera singer (and actually a spy) with whom Gallimard carries on a decades-long affair, all the while believing the latter is a woman.

Here it’s Clive Owen and newcomer Jin Ha who take on these roles superbly, making them their own. Owen makes his character’s conflicting emotions completely plausible and the latter gives Song a convincing Continental allure.

Puccini’s 1904 “Madama Butterfly” – from which the title, of course, derives – runs through the narrative thematically, as it’s an opera that particularly inspired Gallimard from an early age. And its music is Song’s party piece.

Playwright David Henry Hwang has made changes in the text to emphasize the political backdrop, play up the East/West conflict, and giving us more backstory and details which clarify Gallimard’s seeming gullibility. For one thing, now Gallimard first believes Song is a man before being convinced otherwise. (Hwang’s plot derives from a real life story, but remains jaw-droppingly incredible.)

One might rather have expected Julie Taymor to go way over the top with her staging, but not so. Her work is restrained and apt throughout, showing sensitivity to the text. Visually, the Chinese opera performances and the Mao glorification parts are the most eye-filling, as is Ma Cong’s choreography for these sequences, but Taymor creates compelling stage pictures here.

Paul Steinberg’s sliding panel set (expertly lighted by Donald Holder) is spare when it needs to be, as in the opening scenes where Gallimard – in a jail cell for espionage – reveals how the disclosure of how he fell for Song’s ruse has made him a laughing stock, and opening up when appropriate. Constance Hoffman’s costumes, including Song’s chic outfits, are right on the money, too.

All the performances are satisfying, including Enid Graham as Gallimard’s stiff upper lip wife; Celeste Den as the scarily fierce Comrade Chin who makes sure Song stays loyal to the cause and doesn’t succumb to decadent Western  ways; Michel Countryman as Gallimard’s diplomatic superior who envies Gallimard his Chinese mistress when gossip of the affair reaches him; and Clea Alsip as a provocative student who comes onto Gallimard.

I hadn’t thought I needed to see “M. Butterfly” again, but Hwang’s revisions, Taymor’s vision, and the riveting performances make this an absorbing, often enthralling, experience all over again.
 
(Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)