TORCH SONG TRILOGY, Phoenix Ascending, at the Athenaeum Theatre. It’s tempting to declare Harvey Fierstein’s 1983 Tony winner dated, even nostalgic. It now seems quaint that his wisecracking, big-hearted protagonist, Arnold Beckoff–a drag queen (“Virginia Ham”) who pines for bourgeois domesticity–battles not AIDS but his mother’s disapproval. Yet Fierstein writes from the heart–a still viable source–and for all its 70s cuteness the play does tackle hot-button issues like hate crimes, gay adoption, sexual promiscuity, and the ambivalence of bisexuals.
The three-part structure remains a virtuoso achievement. In the salacious first act, the ostentatiously open Arnold develops a frustrating relationship with a closeted bisexual teacher; in the second, a tour de force of psychosexual intrigue is played out on a huge bed; and in the conventional third act, Arnold creates a second family, defying his mother when she denies his right to be loved.
Stephen R. Roath’s revival–a showcase for actors in Second City’s Players Workshop–is nearly four hours long but seldom seems it: Roath coaches sturdy if sometimes uninspired performances from his dedicated but uneven ensemble. Though Matthew Gunnels is almost too attractive for the self-deprecating role of Arnold, he makes this needy, hopeful character a delightful amalgam of whiplash wit and operatic self-pity. Robert Steiner plays his vacillating passive-aggressive partner with a charm that might pass for actorly conviction. The other performances range from fresh to formulaic, never quite accumulating the urgency that might counter the patness of Fierstein’s heart-to-heart. –Lawrence Bommer