Review: Lessons in Love From a Drama Queen in ‘Torch Song’

Review: Lessons in Love From a Drama Queen in ‘Torch Song’

This is evident in his tortured relationships with Ed; with the woman Ed marries, Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja, who winningly brings out the character’s wry masochism); and with the handsome, much younger Alan, the model (a likable Michael Hsu Rosen).

Those are the dramatis personae of the play’s first half, which on Broadway has acquired a new breeziness. The pain these people inflict on one another in the name of love (and the denial of it) always hums beneath the surface. The second half introduces us to David (Jack DiFalco, convincingly sassy if a shade too old for the part), a gay 15-year-old whom Arnold is hoping to adopt and, best of all, Mrs. Beckoff, the woman Arnold calls Ma, who arrives from Florida on a visit.

That’s Ms. Ruehl’s part, which she walks, not runs, with and nearly steals the show in an expertly coiled performance. From the moment she arrives, toting all manner of baggage, it’s clear that Ma and Arnold are of the same flesh. Even when they’re quarreling, which is much of the time, they have the synchronized rhythms of a vaudeville team.

You could even say that Ma, the homemaker with a will of iron, is ultimately what Arnold aspires to be. This makes her rejection of him, as a gay man with Good Housekeeping dreams, all the more lacerating. Not that Arnold can’t stand up to her, and not that she can’t stand up to him standing up to her — which turns their climactic face-off into a shattering battle royal.

“Torch Song” has its moments of pure sitcom — there’s a protracted scene about the awfulness of Ed’s cooking — which you can only grin and bear. But it also incorporates shadows of tragedy, including a plot turn involving a brutal hate crime, that feel sadly topical.

And there are moments when Mr. Urie’s Arnold lets us see the bona fide, bottomless fear and uncertainty beneath the larger-than-life facade. It’s there as a sudden, unexpected flicker in his eyes when he says that, at 13, “I knew everything.”

In his opening monologue, Arnold tells us: “A drag queen is like an oil painting. You gotta stand back to get the full effect.” Mr. Urie gives us that full effect, for sure. But as you come to know this dizzying, sobering and surprisingly instructive drama queen, standing back is hardly an option.

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