American Sign Language features this nifty abbreviation for the term “I love you”: Upwardly extend your index and little fingers, fold the remaining two toward your palm and point your thumb sideways; the result combines the letters ‘i,' ‘l' and ‘y.' Jewish drag queen Arnold Beckoff learned that from one of his gay lovers, who happened to be deaf. Arnold also learned the sign for “cockroach” from the same guy—maybe that was a veiled comment on the state of the relationship.
Arnold, the focus in Diversionary Theatre's good Torch Song Trilogy, has an anthology of stories like that one, and they're marked by his insatiable hunger for a sense of meaning, family and place. They're also unique in that Arnold's only 24 at the start of this piece, which tends to strain credulity (he approaches life too seasonedly for somebody so young). But acclaimed playwright-actor Harvey Fierstein wrote it with his colossal heart exactly in the right place, at least as far as the Tony voters were concerned—he won the 1983 Best Play award for his trouble, and his turn as Arnold netted him the Best Actor prize the same year. The play's considered a watershed work on gay self-acceptance, gay culture and gay fear.
Diversionary's Matthew Weeden is likely the type Fierstein would have been looking for if he were casting these three one-acts. His Arnold is wide-eyed and overbearing and longwinded and clueless and unrelentingly accessible in this nearly four-hour outing, which over time finds Arnie in love with the bi, befuddled, married Ed (Barron Henzel), spanking it with boy-toy Alan (Sidney Franklin), scratching his head over Ed's ninny wife Laurel (Amanda Sitton) and delightedly saddled with intrepid gay teen foster son David (an excellent Tom Zohar).
And in different hands, Arnold's mother, Mrs. Beckoff (Jill Drexler), would have been written as the matron from hell; here, she's relegated to second banana, with Arnold throwing her out of his house amid one dig too many. Great scene as directed by the very good Tim Irving, who 20 years ago played Arnold in Diversionary's initial turn at this script.
Fierstein has said he'd like to see Trilogy staged in the present day amid its social relevance, and he sort of got his wish here. The first act, “International Stud,” takes place in 2001 and hinges largely on Arnold's obvious excitement at swift, clandestine backroom encounters. Such practices have made a serious comeback, with drug use and a new generation's fearlessness at their core. But fade to 2007, the setting for the third-act “Widows and Children First!,” wherein Alan has died and David's relationship with Arnold is explored. What an opportunity for Arnie to hip Dave on the resurgent dangers of casual sex—yet that crucial element is way underdone, upended by Arnold's stupid squabble with his mom and the upshot from David's shiner, acquired courtesy of a mouthy kid who has a beef with gays of any age.
That clever “I love you” sign hasn't changed in 25 years. By the same token, this show might have registered more soundly if Irving had let it be the 1980s landmark it is. It's a very good entry nonetheless. But for a few elements, it's also an excellent monument to American culture and a critical piece of the recent history behind it.This review is based on the performance of Nov. 23. Torch Song Trilogy runs through Dec. 16 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., University Heights. $31-$35. 619-220-0097 or www.diversionary.org.
There's a lot to recommend about A Christmas Carol: Not-So-Tiny Tim's Great Big Musical!, Vox Nova's first full production and inaugural departure from its staged-reading stock in trade. It has funny Fred Harlow in the title role; it has an immensely touching number called “La Fiesta de la Buena Noche” (by local veteran Ruff Yeager, who wrote the play's libretto, music and lyrics and is the show's keyboardist); and it has Susan Stratton's direction, which results in some pretty good disparateness of character.
What it doesn't have is a clear motive. Tim (“God bless us, everyone!”) Cratchit was the soul of the Charles Dickens novel that started the whole Christmas Carol family of adaptations—you'll remember from the story that Providence saved Tim's ass to parallel Scrooge's epiphany. Now Tim's all grown up, and he's just as crotchety as Scrooge ever was, without a word as to how he wound up that way. Why re-conceive Scrooge in Scrooge's image and merely call him by another name, especially a name from the same story? Curious, I say, and not terribly productive to boot. A Christmas Carol: Not-So-Tiny Tim's Great Big Musical! runs through Dec. 23 at 6th@Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Ave., Hillcrest. $10-$24. 858-539-6251 or www.voxnovatheatrecompany.com.