Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Torch Song Trilogy"

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note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Alexander Wright

"Torch Song Trilogy"

Reviewed by Alexander Wright

Review for "Torch Song Trilogy", through October 2, 617-524-3200

Presented by the Footlight Club

Arnold..........................Ryan C. Pothier
Ed.................................Joshua M. Kehrberg
Laurel...........................Tara Donoghue
Alan..............................Eric Rendall
David............................John Dean Evans
Mrs. Beckoff................Anna Brown
Radio Announcer.........Bill Bowen

Written by: Harvey Fierstein
Director: Paul Campbell
Stage Manager: Erica Feick
Producers: Sarah Kary, Susan L. Harrington
Set Designer: Tom Brady
Lighting Design: Artie Leger
Costume Design and Production: Diane Brainerd
Make-Up Design: Joy Aliss Cochran, Mark Keller
Properties: Darrick Jackson
House Manager: Joy Aliss Cochran

Paul Campbell opens the Footlight Club's 123rd season touting his 15th consecutive year of directing for the theatre troupe--a record according to club archives. If I were him, I would take a little more care in making such boastful admissions. When "Torch Song Trilogy" closes, Mr. Campbell should seriously consider taking an extended sabbatical from directing or perhaps enroll in a refresher course of Directing 101. The Footlight Club's "Torch Song" is, in kind terms, a disaster of a production (second only to the sinking of the Titanic) that unacceptably clocks in just shy of four hours. But pacing isn't the worst of this show's evils, considering it is severely under-rehearsed, terribly miscast, unimaginatively staged, technically cheesy, flimsily designed, and quite frankly, an excruciating bore.

Rubbing salt in the wound, the Footlighters have increased ticket prices from $12 to $15. One would expect a proportional increase in quality and value, however, the converse seems to be the proven case--so much that the audience should be paid to compensate for its time spent watching this certified flop. If you think I'm joking or have gone overboard, maybe you could get the opinion of several other patrons who walked out before the end of the evening. On the night I attended, approximately one third of the audience packed up and called it a night before the end of the third act.

Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy" won a Tony award for best play in 1983 as well as a Drama Desk, so the Footlight Club can't blame this inadequate production on a weak script or flawed dramatic material. As a matter of fact, it's the only truly exciting piece of theater included in their season lineup. In a nutshell, "Torch Song" is a combination of three one act plays with an overlapping story that documents the life of drag queen, Arnold Beckoff (Ryan C. Pothier) and his on again/off again relationship with Ed Reiss (Joshua M. Kehrberg), a bisexual schoolteacher. In the first act, "The International Stud", Arnold and Ed meet and we are treated to a first-hand account of gay bar backroom interaction. The second act, "Fugue in a Nursery", details conversations and interaction between Arnold, his new lover Alan (Eric Rendall Greimann), Ed, and Ed's new female lover (Tara Donoghue) Laurel during a weekend at Ed's upstate New York farmhouse. "Widows and Children First" comprises the third act and we are introduced to Arnold's mother (Anna Brown) as well as his potential adopted gay son, David (John Dean Evans). This final segment suggests a reconciliation of Arnold and Ed and deals with Arnold's mother's struggle to accept her son's homosexual lifestyle.

Mr. Campbell doomed himself and his cast before rehearsals could even begin. For some incomprehensible reason, he selected an average looking actor (Mr. Greimann) who looks easily thirty (receding hairline and all) to play the role of Alan--an eighteen year old gorgeous and self-assured model. Mr. Greimann possesses none of the physical characteristics required for this role. Going out on a further limb, Mr. Campbell has cast the role of David--a fifteen year old streetwise hustler--with a young man (Mr. Evans) who has the physical maturity and demeanor of a 25 year old.

When the dialog of the second act reiterates the point (by each of the three other actors on stage) that Alan is a young, pretty heartthrob, it seems common sense would dictate the necessity of casting that type of actor in the role. Mr. Greimann's physicality doesn't even come close to resembling that of an "all American" commercial type male model, nor does he even attempt to behave as one. The third act is built around Arnold's pending adoption of David, so one would expect an actor who could pass for a teenager in the role. Mr. Campbell again throws logic out the door and directly violates the circumstances clearly spelled out in the text. It is insulting to the intelligence of the audience when David is old enough to be Arnold's lover rather than his son. As a result, Mr. Greimann and Mr. Evans are completely unbelievable and unconvincing (not to mention, often laughable) as Alan and David, respectively. Even Mr. Pothier and Mr. Kehrberg are too old for the scripted age of their roles. However, if Mr. Campbell had considered changing the spoken dialog to ages 34 and 44, it would have been much more palatable and not so glaringly incongruous.

The building and establishing of personal relationships between characters, particularly during the second act ("Fugue in a Nursery"), is nonexistent. Ms. Donoghue, Mr. Greimann, and Mr. Kehrberg look bored with each other and deliver their lines with a tedious rhythm and cadence that sorely lacks any change of inflection. The actors do not even begin to explore their feelings for each other or even themselves. Due to the directorial deficiencies, it's no wonder Mr. Kehrberg's performance is an uncanny imitation of a whiny Mr. Rogers and Ms. Donoghue succumbs to muddy diction that makes it difficult to understand most of what she says. The source of the weak characterizations may be due, in part, to the fact that nearly every actor repeatedly flubs and stumbles over lines--so often that I ran out of fingers and toes to count the number of occurrences.

Throughout the first and "Will it ever end because the pacing is so slow?" second act, Mr. Pothier is left to fend for himself. The only time he succeeds in rising above the mire is during the third act ("Widows and Children First") when he is on stage with Ms. Brown, who provides the most credible performance of the evening. Unfortunately, it's 11:00 PM by the time this takes place. However, these two are single-handedly responsible for salvaging any theatrical legitimacy that occurs on the stage of Eliot Hall.

The staging Mr. Campbell resorts to, consistent with the other production values, is substandard. It's again the second act where this is most obvious. Each of the two couples begin on opposite sides of an oversized, cartoonish bed nearly the width of the entire stage. Throughout the ensuing dialog, different pairings occur, allowing for some potentially surprising and entertaining blocking combinations. Mr. Campbell resorts to the easiest choice and assigns his actors to only five areas of the bed--the four corners and dead center (it might have been fun for one of the characters to stand on the bed at some point). If you didn't think it could get any worse, rather than conceptually completing the second act within the confines of the bed or in some other creative manner, he brings the action to an abrupt halt and unnecessarily sets up the act two epilogue in Arnold's dressing room, after a very leisurely blackout. It feels about as awkward and uncomfortable as walking with your shoes on the wrong feet.

Yet another disappointment, courtesy of Mr. Campbell, is the absence of an integral first act scripted character, "Lady Blues"--the torch singer. To top it off, Mr. Pothier's Arnold is robbed of the opportunity to express himself through delivering his own torch song. The use of live performance during the opening act helps set the tone of the piece and get the audience in tune with the material that follows. Last time I checked, the name of the play continued be "Torch Song Trilogy". One could only hope Mr. Fierstein would swiftly revoke the Footlight Club's performance rights if he were made aware of this blatant omission.

Even the technical components of Footlight's "Torch Song" are dismal. Extended blackouts drag out the length of scene changes and many times when the lights return, it's nearly impossible to discern what actually was changed on stage. We can hear the sound operator pressing the play and stop buttons to begin and end sound cues. Not only does the door frame of Arnold's apartment looks like it's going to topple over every time someone walks through it, but the bleak decor suggests that Arnold lives in a tenement building abandoned by its owners and scheduled for demolition next week. Arnold's dressing table and room is virtually devoid of the accouterments and accessories vital for the well-being, comfort, and satisfaction of any respectable drag queen. Where costumes are concerned, no effort is made to define time or place. Consider David's Saturday Night Fever style getup alongside Mrs. Beckoff's contemporary 1990's Jewish mother fashions.

The Footlight Club should be hanging their heads in shame by charging increased admission for a season opener that isn't even close to performance level. You have to think they are fooling only themselves when the program brags that "serious, accomplished performers combine with creative, experienced directors and producers." It is extremely evident that they are in dire need of an influx or infusion of fresh blood if they want to get back on track producing theater that "may be amateur, but not amateurish." Mr. Campbell should consider stepping aside for the time being and/or seriously reexamine and reconsider his "amateurish" directing approach if he wants to continue the Footlight Club's tradition of presenting quality theatre.

If you would like to experience the full effect of this magnificent, bittersweet, gritty, touching, and comic piece of theatrical literature, I strongly suggest checking it out of your local library and curling up on the couch for a few hours, or even better yet, go to your local video store and rent it. Or you could always wait until another area theater presents "Torch Song Trilogy" with the respect, artistic integrity, and attention to detail it appropriately deserves.

Alexander Wright

"Torch Song Trilogy
7A Eliot Street, JAMAICA PLAIN

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