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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Torch Song
Marin Theatre Company

Also see Patrick's review of The Glass Menagerie

Nancy Carlin, Dean Linnard and Joe Ayers
Photo by David Allen
When Torch Song Trilogy was first produced in New York in 1981 (after its first act, International Stud was staged by La MaMa in 1978), it was ahead of its time. Unlike The Boys in the Band, which premiered in 1968, which depicted a group of gay men who were, for the most part, self-loathing, ashamed, and/or deeply closeted. The main character of Torch Song (an edited down version of the original three-act play), Arnold Beckoff (played in this Marin Theatre Company production by Dean Linnard), is out and proud. With HIV/AIDS still beyond the horizon, the downtown New York gay scene was one of tremendous freedom–at least in the dark back rooms of some of the city's seedier gay bars. A drag queen whose stage name is Virginia Hamm, Beckoff has no interest in the sexual liberation for gay people that was happening around the time of the action in this play–mid-1970s to early 1980s.

No, what Arnold Beckoff is interested in is lasting, monogamous love–the sort of thing his mother (Nancy Carlin) would approve of, if only Arnold wanted a relationship with a woman. When Arnold meets Ed (Patrick Andrew Jones), things look good for a while. Arnold is smitten with Ed–at least until Ed's bisexuality rears its head and he chooses a more conventional life with a woman he was fixed up with: the sweet and pretty Laurel (Kina Kantor). After some mourning, Arnold moves on, meeting an attractive hustler turned model named Alan (Eric Young). Without giving too much away, Arnold is in for more mourning and some painful conversations with Mama when she comes to visit from Florida. But first there will be significant discomfort when Arnold and Alan visit Ed and Laurel at Ed's country house in upstate New York.

It's in these scenes where director Evren Odcikin's choices lead the production astray. As staged by Odcikin, all the scenes in the country house take place in a giant bed with four pillows, tilted at an angle of about 60 degrees, so the characters are facing us. I imagine the point of this is to reinforce the sexual tension between the two couples that would permeate the atmosphere in every room of the house, but Fierstein has already made this quite clear in his text, so it seems a bit on the nose for Odcikin to hammer it home in this way, even though some of the scenes are ostensibly taking place in locations outside the two bedrooms symbolized by one bed.

Although Linnard does terrific work at Arnold, showing his huge range (his character is wildly different than the last show in which I saw him perform, the wonderful Born With Teeth at Aurora Theatre Company), the rest of the cast seem to always be out of synch with each other. Although Joe Ayers does a good job as an adult man playing a 15-year old boy (Arnold's foster son, David), the cast never really come together as an ensemble.

The main problem with Torch Song may not be a lack of chemistry, but rather a lack of timeliness. For although there are still far too many homophobes in the world–especially in positions of power and influence–everyday life for the LGBTQ community has changed so much for the better that this Torch Song feels a little creaky. The show is nearly saved by Linnard's performance, and the many funny, kvetch-y/bitchy queen lines Fierstein gives his characters. Bemoaning one night stands, Arnold states that "a thing of beauty is a joy 'til sunrise." Fearing the back room scene, Arnold worries, "what if I don't glow in the dark?" Or his "A drag queen is alike an oil painting–you gotta stand back to get the full effect."

Despite the wit on display, Torch Song drags on (pun not intended), covering ground that feels too far removed from contemporary gay life to feel truly relevant. Simply put, we are thankfully in an era where Arnold's sad confession to his mother about his life and the life of his friends: "Queers don't matter. Queers don't love–and those that do get what they deserve" lacks the veracity it had when Fierstein first wrote the line some 40+ years ago. There is humor and heartbreak in Torch Song, but in this production it's hidden behind a facade nowhere near as attractive or entertaining as drag queens strive to be.

Torch Song plays through June 2, 2024, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Sundays at 7:30pm, with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets range from $39.50-$69.50 (plus fees). For tickets and information, please visit, or call the box office at 415-388-5208.