Torch Song (Chapel Off Chapel) – theatre review

Imagine a sensitive drag queen – a gay man – falling for a bisexual man who has trouble with commitment and you have the starting point for Torch Song. It is a shortened, two act reimagining of the four hour plus, three act play, Torch Song Trilogy, which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1983. While some of the work appears dated, because – fortunately – society has moved on since it was conceived, deep prejudices remain.

Photos by Tom Noble

Arnold Beckoff (Joshua Reuben) is an insightful, but neurotic Jewish drag queen looking for love in New York City. Into his life steps Ed Reiss (Scott Middleton), who finds himself attracted to both men and women. Truth to told, Ed can’t bring himself to tell his conservative parents that he has homosexual tendencies.

While Arnold is committed to an exclusive relationship with Ed, Ed continues to fool around with others. The latter meets and marries Laurel (Phoebe Anne Taylor), but stays in touch with Arnold. Arnold moves on with a younger man, model Alan (Declan Clifford). Following a tragedy, Arnold embraces adoption of a gay teenager, David (Louie Dalzell), who has seen his fair share of dislocation and trouble.

Arnold finds himself clashing with his strong-willed mother (Melina Wylie), who doesn’t countenance his lifestyle, but whom he loves and she him. Meanwhile, Ed continues to be an ever-present force in Arnold’s life.

Written by Harvey Fierstein, Torch Song Trilogy was a powerful and affecting work, highlighting struggle and acceptance. It remains so in this cut down version, which spans a timeframe of nine years, from the 1970s through to the early ‘80s.

The commitment of the actors to the cause is admirable. Doing the lion’s share of the heavy lifting, Joshua Reuben is strong and polished, never taking a backward step. He transforms into Arnold. What struck me about Scott Middleton was the naturalism he brought to his performance. There is an inherent authenticity about him.

Phoebe Anne Taylor is believable as the good-natured wife who know she has her work cut out for her. Declan Clifford brings boyish good looks and charm to his representation of Alan. Louie Dalzell is cheeky and cheery as David. Melina Wylie trots out the “can’t hold her tongue” Jewish momma stereotype to dramatic and comedic effect.

Mind you, I felt she had a thankless role in the first act, when she donned a sparkly green dress and gyrated her way between scenes with exaggerated affectations. I thought that that didn’t work at all as a theatrical device. In fact, it simply served to frustrate me no end. My only other reservation is that, on occasion, some of the actors pushed too hard, so that the characters all but became caricatures.

Still, the impact of Torch Song, directed by Cal Robinson-Taylor and Phoebe Anne Taylor is unmistakable. Navigating relationships – gay, bi or straight – can be difficult at the best of times. Hiding one’s true self inevitably leads to extra complications. Violence and intolerance continues to cast an ugly pall. Torch Song is playing at Chapel Off Chapel until 10th February, 2024.

Alex First

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