‘Torch Song’ needed more thought

Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy” has three parts, but the current Off-Strip/Onyx production — which features only the first — easily stands on its own.

The script is about a gay man hoping to find true love. When the show premiered in 1982, the smell of the Stonewall riots was still in the air, and Fierstein’s plea for acceptance was daring. The author’s humor often has bite, but without the 1970s social context, the writing feels obvious and mawkish.

The play’s rock is the relationship between cynical, New York City drag queen Arnold (Michael Neel) and the closeted Ed (Christopher Hermening). Both claim they love one another, but Ed doesn’t want the world to know. His heterosexual affairs are public (she even gets to meet mama), but Arnold is something he keeps in dark corners. The dramatic question is: Can Arnold’s devotion give Ed the confidence to be who he is?

The action is framed by a series of cocktail-lounge torch songs (performed, simply, by Olga Gomez Rios, with Eric Eichorst on piano) that deepen Arnold’s angst. The full-of-yearning sung sentiments help make you understand why poor Arnold became a drag queen. Under what other mask could he hide his sorrow?

Neel and Hermening often communicate well. We can see how much Neel’s character wants to keep Ed, and how confused Ed is when he tries to analyze the situation. Neel is best when he doesn’t push, but there are times when he’s one-note aggravation. Hermening makes you understand how badly his character wants to do the right thing. But he, too, especially in the long last scene, could use some dramatic variety.

Rios, a sensual, full-figured woman, looks comfortable in her body. Maybe that’s one of the reasons she comes across so attractive. She has a fine lower register that simmers with passion. But she desperately needs better between-song patter and numbers devoid of high notes. (The director hasn’t served the performer well.)

I had a good enough time at “Torch” to make me wish the production were better. I have a feeling if this were re-mounted after more thought and rehearsing, it could easily be a more enriching experience.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at vegastheaterchat @aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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