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Review: Torch Song Trilogy at Studio Theatre

Arty Pants
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A note from the Bitches: As this is a gay play, and we were far away, we sent Cori Sue’s gay husband, Josh, and his boy toy to review Studio Theatre’s latest show. Here’s his thoughtful commentary.

Harvey Fierstein’s classic “Torch Song Trilogy,” currently being staged at the Studio Theatre submerses the audience into the life of Arnold, a gay Jewish New Yorker in the 1970s and 1980s.

One aspect of DC I will never tire of is that even after so many years here, I’m not even close to finished exploring. This was my first trip to Studio Theatre, though likely not my last. With its intimate seating, modern design and, in this instance, impeccable performance, the theatre made a fan out of me, adding yet another item to my list of “Things I love About This City.”

Also included on that list is the comfort I’ve always felt here in D.C. as a gay man. I hear stories from gay friends around the country relating the various ways they have to always be on guard with their sexuality, something I’ve never had to do here in Washington and something that was definitely in the back of my head as I watched Torch Song Trilogy last night.

Photo credit: Teddy Wolff
Photo credit: Teddy Wolff

Throughout the Michael Kahn directed performance, I found myself thinking about how lucky I am today to live in a time where the prejudices, difficulties, and challenges faced by the characters have in large part faded or disappeared from day to day concerns. This is true in more than just the social sense.

My date pointed out that his mother and stepfather took his coming out as a non-event, unlike Arnold’s mother who years later refuses to see his love and his life as worthy of respect. Arnold continually attempts to justify himself to her.

These perspectives lent Torch Song Trilogy both an historical significance and a poignant melancholy, despite its often gut-busting humor. Yes, this is a play and these are actors and afterwards we get to walk home hand-in-hand together with no worry or concern for what might happen, but the experiences portrayed—the confusion, the questioning, the violence, the familial struggles—these happened and continue to happen for so many. This truth, mirthful and healing at times, raw and devastating at others is where Torch Song Trilogy finds its strengths. It also helps the three-and-half-hour run time fly by in a most riveting fashion.

Photo credit: Teddy Wolff
Photo credit: Teddy Wolff

Moreover, unlike many other plays with a gay focus from this time period, the play completely sidesteps the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, providing a different look at the dating life of gay men in New York before the AIDS onset.

In a time where film and television not only accepts, but embraces gay characters, plotlines, and stories, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way. Harvey Fierstein to anyone under the age of 30 is probably best known as Robin William’s gay brother in Mrs. Doubtfire.

Over a decade earlier, this same man was fighting the good fight for LGBT rights in New York City, while finding time to write and star in the Tony Award winning play this review discusses. Not just a play featuring gay characters front and center, Torch Song Trilogy, broke new ground in the 1980s in its portrayal of gay romance, love, relationships, and family by making it accessible to a mainstream audience. Fierstein does this by showing us how love and family are difficult for everyone, gay or straight. We all feel loss, we all feel joy, we all experience life for better or worse. His work is credited as a major step forward in theater and the larger discussion of homosexual relationships.

Torch Song Trilogy at the Studio Theatre also impresses on a technical level, with 3 acts of roughly an hour each carried by no more than 3 or 4 characters at a time, often with one or two holding monologues or dialogues lasting long enough that one has to wonder how even professional actors can memorize such long, complicated passages. The music, the lighting, the intimacy of the set all heighten the audience’s feeling that they are right there soldiering through with the characters onstage.

Photo credit: Teddy Wolff
Photo credit: Teddy Wolff

Some might find the portrayal of David either too wise for his character’s age of 15 years or conversely too immature when compared to the cast; he definitely is the one cast member who doesn’t gel quite as well with the rest of the cast, but it’s a small flaw in an otherwise grand production. Brandon Uranowitz’s Arnold in particular is a marvel, pulling the audience in from the gate with his 10 plus minute opening discussion with the audience. He is obnoxious, lonely, resolute, nebbish, hilarious, strong, heartbroken and redeemed in equal parts and conveys each emotion with perfection.

Studio Theatre has taken a strong, difficult and moving work and adapted to great success here. A longtime fixture of 14th Street, some might have wondered how veterans of the neighborhood would fare with the addition of so many new hotspots and the increased attention.

If Torch Song Trilogy is any indication, Studio Theatre has no need to worry about fitting in with its new, hip neighbors. By showing it can infuse a classic play so rooted in the history and culture of its setting with an immediacy and relevance to the here and now, Studio Theatre shows what I am sure is just one of the many reasons for its enduring success.

Studio Theatre
1501 14th St. N.W.
Washington, D.C.

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