The outrageous, hysterical and irresistible off-Broadway performance of Harvey Fierstein in his own quasi-autobiographical Torch Song Trilogy was one of the great New York theatre events of the early 1980s. I stood up and ovated at the end, like everyone else.

It’s still quite something to have an impassioned, unruly stage soap about a drag queen called Arnold Beckoff trawling the back rooms of low dives, falling in love with a bisexual teacher, losing a young boyfriend in a queer bashing assault and settling down in Manhattan with plans to adopt a teenage delinquent.

Despite the best efforts of David Bedella as Arnold, who plays down the monstrosity while attending to the grace notes, the show, cut by an hour in Douglas Hodge’s nearly three-hour production (as it was when Antony Sher led the West End première in 1985), is still too baggy and flabby without Fierstein; and the big joke of a gay fantasia subsiding into formal sitcom respectability is too flattened out.

Torch Song’s rambling imperfections and glorious special pleadings, once its strength, have become its slow-down weakness. And the central section, “Fugue in a Nursery,” which shows Arnold and his young lover Alan (Tom Rhys Harries) romping metaphorically in a large bed with the teacher (Joe McFadden) and his crop-haired wife Laurel (Laura Pyper) is now more a barrage of wispy clichés than a barrel of loaded laughs.

David Bedella & Sara Kestelman in Torch Song Trilogy
In the third panel, or triptych, “Widows and Children First,” Arnold’s Jewish mother (Sara Kestelman) comes to call, making latkes, still harbouring vague hopes that Arnold might find the right girl and finally accepting the new domestic arrangements, though shocked to learn that the intended adoptee, David, who has survived three foster homes so far, is gay: “But he’s only been here six months!”

It is brave, risky almost, of Hodge to have both Alan and David played so ostentatiously “out” by Rhys Harries and newcomer Perry Millward (with a bruised eye and a Jedward hairstyle), and he doesn’t duck the tricky issue here of adoption instincts getting muddled with sexual engagement; this is the most notable area of sociological commentary in the play.

Another Hodge idea is to have the torch songs of the first part, “The International Stud,” sung by the actors (not a separate singer) themselves, accompanied by harpist Rebecca Royce, with Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine” emerging as the show’s theme tune. And there’s a great low-key ensemble song of defiance at the end.

Mostly, though, the evening is slightly uphill work, without the pyrotechnical bravura of the show’s writer/performer to lighten the load and provide the whiplash venom needed for Arnold’s exchanges with his mother. Joe McFadden is touchingly sympathetic as the teacher, but the play’s most likeable character is Laura Pyper’s gamine, good-natured Laurel, caught in a whirlpool of sexual cross currents that leave her confused without bitterness.

- Michael Coveney

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