Harvey Fierstein’s best writing maintains exhilarating three-way tension between anger, humor and sentiment. At its weakest it lurches from mawkish to the egregiously sentimental. Although his breakthrough “Torch Song Trilogy” always flew dangerously close to the latter, it soared on the passion of the author’s career-defining lead performance. As it turned out, his pre-AIDS trilogy was also era-defining. Now a history piece, it looks seriously less consistent. In Douglas Hodge’s Menier Chocolate Factory revival, the final play still delivers but the previous two feel dated.
David Bedella plays the Fierstein role of drag queen Arnold. Against the mores of the times, Arnold wants love rather than the rampant sex permanently up for grabs, as it were, in the gleefully hedonistic world of the late ’70s. As the title of the first of these chronological one-acts suggests, he’s in search of “The International Stud,” the ideal man who’ll love him. And he finds him in Ed (Joe McFadden).
Only trouble is, Arnold is waspish but Ed is WASP-ish, regarding himself as merely occasionally bisexual. His head is a very long way behind what his body is so eagerly doing. Being openly gay is not an option.
A bust-up, recriminations, rows and tears later, Ed is discovered in the second play living the straight life upstate a couple of years later with his oh-so-understanding girlfriend Laurel (an ideally overbright Laura Pyper). They’ve invited Arnold for the weekend to prove how open-minded they are, but events don’t go according to plan, not least because Arnold brings with him his new boyfriend, pretty blonde model Alan (Thomas Rhys Harries).
In the final, most substantial play, Arnold is dealing with a 15-year-old gay foster son and providing a temporary home for Ed, who is in the process of getting a divorce. Into this combustible mix comes Sara Kestelman as Arnold’s redoubtable mother.
An actor best known for grave compassion, Kestelman is a revelation. The role has always been the Jewish mother in excelsis, but the committed, physical zing that Kestelman brings to the role makes her look like a marksman. Yet it’s not the speed of her attacking one-liners that’s so enthralling but her ability to place them in just enough space for thought.
She’s playing an ultimately unsympathetic role, but her exquisite timing allows audiences to see and empathize. The unintended downside is the light that shines on the surrounding performances.
At one point, Ed is talking on the phone, leading Arnold to complain: “There’s nothing more frustrating than a one-sided conversation.” That, alas, defines much of Bedella’s performance for the first half of the evening. Yes, he’s playing a performer, but Bedella is in thrall to that. He’s intent on displaying all the moods with flamboyant, growling energy. Acting, however, is mostly about listening. Much of this play is direct address, but even monologues require listening in order to let audiences in.
Although McFadden has boisterous energy as Ed, he is too young and puppyish to convince as an upstanding, regular guy whose life will cave in if he gives in to his guilty secret. There are also casting difficulties around the fact that Hodge has redistributed the torch songs originally sung by an unconnected singer among his cast members. That smartly ties them all to the action, but almost none of them is a strong enough singer to sustain a number sung to a solo harp.
Hodge has wisely trimmed the text but follows Fierstein’s script admonition (“PACE!!!!!!!”) too resolutely. In the first two plays, the performance energy and emotional display is high but connection is low. The final section, with life choices and characters more fully explored, is by far the most successful. But heartfelt though the playing of the final scenes is, the end feels sentimental when it should be searing.