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October 25, 1984 - Image 7

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1984-10-25

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By Dennis Harvey
"You may not understand this," cries
gay Everyman (well, sort of) Arnold
Beckoff near the end of Harvey Fier-
stein's Torch Song Trilogy, "but I want
more out of life than just meeting a
pretty face." Pause. "And sitting on
Playing at the Fisher Theatre in
Detroit through October 28, Fierstein's
Tony-winning triad of short plays has
plenty of good clean (and lots more
good unclean) fun, much guaranteed to
send the subscription crowd scram-
bling for the refuge of the lobby; it also
has more than its share of self-
confession, pathos, shouted Big Issues
and tears.
What saves it from being yet another
trot, however clever from one-liner to
one-liner, through that ultimately con-
descending Boys in the Band under-
sives territory is that A.) Fierstein is a
playwright with a solid sense of overall
craft and structuring to back up his
knack for the ingenious visual or verbal
gag; and B.) Torch Song, despite Ar-
nold's frequently problematic relation-
ships ("When the going gets too good, I
get out"), is essentially affirmative.
While Fierstein's somewhat
autobiographical stage world may still
be a bit much for those whose tolerance
for controversy in Broadway-package
form doesn't go very far beyond Annie
or 42nd St., the show isn't only abut
sexuality-after three and a half hours
of Arnold and his friends, there's really
nothing left unexamined that could be
of significance to anyone, of any walk
of life.
Nearly four hours of practically

anything on stage could get hair-
pullingly repetitious after a while. But
Torch Song Trilogy's three sections,
each fairly complete in themselves (all
were originally produced seperately,
and all were trimmed somewhat to
create this single evening of theatre),
are so structurally diverse that there's
no feeling of redundancy at any point.
The first, "The International Stud,"
introduces us to Arnold-25, New
Yorker, professional drag queen-and
to his uneasily bisexual 35-year-old
lover Ed (Malcolm Stewart) in a series
of monologues climaxing in a post-
breakup confrontation between the two,
each scene bridged by a racucous ren-
dition of a classic pop song by "Lady
Blues" (Brooks Almy), who acts as a
sort of campy Greek chorus.
If "Stud" hardly seems a 'play' at
all-it's more a sketchbook of brilliant
individual diatribes, none of which are
particularly dependent on any of the
others-it's often devestatingly funny,
the monologuing non-structure
allowing Fierstein free rein to toss out
almost more great lines than the
audience is prepared to take in. "It's
not that I've got anything against
analysis-I think it's a great way to
keep from boring your friends," Arnold
tells Ed. Later, infuriated at Ed's
"sudden burst of heterosexuality," Ar-
nold lambasts his silence: "What's the
matter? Catch your tongue in the closet
door?" The use of monologues until the
last scene results in some memorably
bizarre moments-one sequence in
which P.J. Benjamin's Arnold attempts
pleasant small talk while being, er, en-
tered from the rear by a stranger in the
back room of a bar is, unlikely as it
sounds, just about the funniest mixture
of pantomime and verbosity one could
It's a bit like going from Bananas to A
Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, jum-

ping from "Stud" to "Fugue in the Nur-
sery," a delicate roundelay of
parlour/boudoir sexual polemics that is
Torch Song's technical virtuoso per-
formance and perhaps its most
satisfying segment as well. Taking
place one year later, "Fugue" gleefully
plays out a situation that cries for
disaster-as the temporarily
'straightened out' Ed's aggressively
whole-wheat girlfriend Laurel (Louisa
Flaningam) exclaims with horribly
misguided enthusiasm, "Just imagine!
A weekend with your lover's ex, and his
new boyfriend! It's practically Noel
Arnold and his new lover, the awfully
pretty ex-hustler male model Alan
(Bruce Toms) are invited upstate to
Ed's cabin at Laurel's insistence,
despite Ed's understandable doubts;
she hopes to improve further their
"open and honest" relationship by get-
ting to know her former "competition,"
but of course the weekend only results
in mass confusion and a lot of good
lines. Laurel defines the general at-
mosphere when she screams, "Just
because I say that's what I want doesn't
mean that's what I want!" The final
results are a four-way dead draw, but
Arnold seeks to find some redeeming
worth in the mess-"If two wrongs
don't make a right, maybe four do."
Pleasant mock-chamber music by Ada
Janik sets the tone for Fugue's dizzying
playfulness with chronology and
dialogue juxtapositions, and the staging
is a master stroke-the entire play is
enacted on a colossal stage-wide bed
that stands in for "various rooms of
Ed's farmhouse and Arnold's apar-
tment," with the four characters boun-
cing like chessmen from one corner to
another, from one conversation or time
period to another.
It's logical that the third section
should, after "International Stud's"

gy fir'
bare-bones feel and "Fugue's" flirting
with the avant-garde, continue the
monologues, flashbacks, no fiddling
with standard structure in any way.
"Widows and Children First!" picks up
Arnold's life five years later, when he's
still convalescing from the loss of a
lover some time before; has "adopted"
a 15-year-old juvenile delinquent whom
he's both father and (mostly) mother
to; and is once again embroiled in the
identity crises of Ed, who has just left
Laurel and is sleeping on Arnold's sofa
until he figures out just what else to do.
The catalyst for conflict this time is
no less than Arnold's mother (Thelma
Lee), who comes up from Florida to
visit and within 30 seconds is having
seizures of disapproval of over Arnold's
precarious new 'family' of Ed and 15-
year-old David (Karl Weidergott). A
rather standard Jewish mother cliche
inflated to gargantuan proportions,
Mrs. Beckoff locks horns with Arnold in
verbal jousts that soon reach the sorest
of sore points-"If I'd known you were
going to turn out that way (i.e. gay), I
wouldn't have bothered." Those par-
ticular sorts of prejudices are too deep-
rooted to bear easy change in the cour-
se of "Widows' " 24 hours, and Fier-
stein admirably resists the temptation
to whip up a complete recon-
ciliation-at the end Arnold and his
mother have confirmed their differen-
ces without reaching any real under-
standing of them.
The major issues, uplift, etc.-the
stuff that makes this, finally, a serious
evening of theatre, which it wouldn't be
if the first two plays were its en-
tirety-can be found mostly here, and
Fierstein writes powerful confron-
tations. Still, the situations seem a bit
pat after the adventurousness of the fir-
st two plays, and the tone at times
grows a bit shrill. Thelma Lee's Ma
Beckoff commands attention but wins
few points for subtlety, and when she
and Benjamin (who doesn't seem a
overstated as long as he has a deadpan
fall guy to bounce off as an actor)
square off, the resulting emotional din
is a bit too much like Godzilla vs. the
Smog Monster to be as touching as it
ought to be.
The cast seen in Detroit (note that
Are invited to apply for the
Ottawa Political Internship/Seminar
sponsored by the Political Science Discipline
of the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
6 Credit hours (Politico! Science 495, 496)
Director of the program, Dr. Helen M. Graves
will be on campus
Friday, October 26
1:00 - 3:00 p.m.
Room 6602 Political Science Lounge, Haven Mall
to interview interested students.


The Michigan Daily - Thursday, October 25, 1984 - Page 7
up Detroit

different actors play Ed and Arnold at
the weekend matinees) is of higher than
usual quality for a road company; they
don't have much of that we've-been-
to-say-lines-in-our-sleep quality that too
often reigns among touring Broadway
shows. As Ed, Malcolm Stewart has the
rather thankless task of playing, er,
straightman to everyone else in all
three plays. "Ed has no sense of
humor, but that's part of his charm"
observes Laurel breezily. Stewart
keeps Ed likeable with a nice, subtly
warming understatement-one can un-
derstand why the seemingly incom-
patible Arnold would remain drawn to
him, because despite his sexual con-
fusion Ed is the steady, predictable,
devoted, agreeably unspectacular Mr.
Nice Guy that we'd all secretly like to
take care of us. (When that particular
fantasy is realized, of course, problems
of boredom immediately set in.)
Bruce Toms and Karl Wiedergott also
acquit themselves admirably in their
single-play roles as wise-guy youths,
and Louisa Flannigan manages to
make Laurel's potentially annoying
cheerleader naievety funny without

being dopey. P.J. Benjamin's Arnold
is, from all accounts, rather more
broadly drawn than those of Harvey
Fierstein or his immediate NYC suc-
cessor. Benjamin has the exhausting
role down so pat that his comic delivery
has a certain sitcomish over-emphasis,
and the pathos bits (without any grey
shading to bridge the funny & sad stuff)
are a tad mechanical. On the other
hand, Arnold could all too easily turn
into a baroque one-liner machine like
the La Cage Aux Folles caricatures,
and the actor does manage to keep him
human; if he's perhaps a whit more
cartoony than Fierstein may have in-
tended, there's no doubt that Benjamin
is an excellent mimic. He is very
funny, and to be sure he lets no poten-
tially good piece of business escape our
full attention.
The overall production is remarkably
tight-another road-show rarity.
Though perhaps not a definitive ver-
sion, this touring Torch Song Trilogy is
as close as we're going to get for a
while, and the opportunity of seeing
Fierstein's work done this well is well
worth even the alarming amount of
dough you'll have to shell out for it.

Choose me
Dr. Nancy Love (Genevieve Bujold) bares her soul to her roommate, Eve (Lesley Ann Warren), in "Choose Me," the
latest film from director Alan Rudolph. "Choose Me" opens tomorrow at the Ann Arbor Theaters on South Fifth Ave.

Taj Mahal
sings blues
(Contined from Page 6)
were originals. Some foreign influence
was evident in a Jamaican song about
violence and Harder-They-Come
outlaws, which he sang in perfect
Jamaican accent and reggae tone.
"It's a drug, you know," he later
remarked, relating how his "Fishin'
Blues" appealed to nationalities from
Australia to Spain.
And the Ark audiences got high on the
blues drug that's sometimes happy,
sometimes grim, but in the hands of Taj
Mahal, always a good time.


Savor the Spellbinding Climax of
a Grand Science Fiction Trilogy.
The Majipoor Trilogy



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