By STEVE PFARRER
Ever since the November 2022 elections, politicians in over a dozen Republican-controlled states have seemed to compete with each other in attacking parts of the LGBTQ community: banning or restricting gender-affirming medical care for transgender kids, removing books on gender diversity from school libraries, or forbidding classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation.
The Easthampton Theater Company, in the community ensemble’s second production, is offering a distinct response to that: staging a revised version of a Tony Award winning play about a drag queen.
“Torch Song,” which begins a six-day run at CitySpace Jan. 26, is a shortened version of Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy,” which won a number of awards, including two Tonys, when it opened in New York City in the early 1980s.
The play was celebrated for its open and humorous portrait of the main character, Arnold Beckoff, a torch song-singing Jewish drag queen living in New York City who’s just trying to find his small portion of happiness.
“This is such a time capsule of life in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s,” said Jason Rose-Langston, the director and co-producer of the Easthampton production. And, he notes, it was one of the first plays to gave visibility to the gay community.
Today, he says, staging “Torch Song” serves not just as a rebuttal to the conservative backlash to trans people but as an important statement for Easthampton Theater Company, which formed in late 2022 and staged its first production, “God of Carnage,” last May.
“We want to be an inclusive company and produce work for a range of audiences and communities,” said Rose-Langston, who’s been acting for years in the area, particularly with a Ludlow ensemble, the Exit 7 Players. “That’s an important part of our mission.”
Rose-Langston is also a psychotherapist practicing in Easthampton, and he’s been working with trans clients for about 20 years. Given that, he says discovering a play that looks at LGBTQ issues through the lens of the late 1970s “just felt perfect for me and the company.”
But he and Michael O. Budnick, the other co-producer of “Torch Song” and the president of the theater company’s board of directors, say “Torch Song” also stands on its own as an often humorous look at the ups and downs of gay relationships, as well as issues such as gay adoption.
And at a time when drag performers have also found themselves in the crosshairs of conservatives, Rose-Langston says it’s refreshing to see the character of Arnold Beckoff (played by Patric Madden), whether dressed in drag or regular clothes, “not seen as someone who’s the root of all evil.”
No cell phones here
At a recent rehearsal, held at the parish hall of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Easthampton, much of the play’s humor was on display, as the six main cast members worked through different scenes, primarily in short sections involving just two actors at a time.
Some of the fun came from watching Madden struggle a bit with a strange object from the past — a rotary phone — in a scene in which he has a telephone conversation with another character, Ed (Jay Torres), a bisexual man he’s been involved with.
After a brief take, Rose-Langston walked up to Madden, who was seated, and said he wanted him to stand and pick up the phone as he delivered a specific line; he grabbed the phone off a separate chair, which was being used to represent a small table, from below to demonstrate the move.
But when Madden tried the scene again, the bulky phone slipped from his fingers and clattered to the floor. “How do you do this?” he asked with a rueful smile.
And stage manager Veronica Klakotskiy, sitting at a nearby table, pointed out something else. “You only dialed six times,” she said to Madden, as laughter rang around the room.
Once the scene was fully up and running, the dialogue was sharp and witty, with Madden affecting a pretty good New Yawk accent. As Arnold, he’s horrified to learn Ed recently had a date with a woman and wonders what’s behind “this sudden burst of heterosexuality.”
Among the other characters are Arnold’s often-critical “Ma” (Rona Leventhal); Laurel (Kim Tobin), who at one point gets engaged to Ed; and Alan (David DiRocco), a younger lover Arnold gets involved with after he and Ed break up.
As originally presented, “Torch Song Trilogy” had three separate sections that together ran over four hours and covered three periods of Arnold’s life, the first two about a year apart and the third taking place several years later when he adopts a teenager, David (Devin Dumas).
The current version of the play runs about two and half hours, Budnick says.
There’s some slapstick comedy, too. In one scene, Ma, who lives in Florida, comes to visit Arnold in New York and, not realizing he’s adopted David, whacks the teen with her pocketbook when she first sees him in the apartment: “A burglar! Arnold, a burglar!”
“I’m not a burglar,” David protests.
“Then what are you?” huffs Ma. “Some kind of Peeping Tom who gets his kicks watching middle-aged women strip beds?”
Laughs aside, “Torch Song” has its serious themes, Rose-Langston says, as it examines Arnold’s disillusionment about love and considers issues such as violence against gays and the efforts by gay men to win respect and acceptance for who they are.
Yet the play, he adds, was also first launched at a time “when there was a real sense of optimism about the future” in the gay community, with a belief that the future would be more accepting: “The theme is of realistic hope, not desperate hope.”
The Easthampton play has a secret weapon of sorts. Jason P. Hayes, an in-demand wig and hair designer who has worked with Harvey Fierstein on some of his other plays, is part of the production team, volunteering his time, wigs and costumes to the show.
Hayes has worked with a wide range of acting clients — Cate Blanchett, Angelica Huston, Megan Fox and Antonio Banderas, to name a few — for both theater and television, and his TV credits include “30 Rock,” “Mercy,” “Gossip Girl” and “SNL.”
At the rehearsal, as he fitted a number of actors with wigs, he explained that he’d been idled last year during the Writers Guild of America strike. It was then that he started seeing some early ads for Easthampton Theater Company’s “Torch Song” pop up on his Facebook feeds.
He was intrigued that a small ensemble was tackling a noted work of queer theater and emailed the company, saying he wanted to help out. “I live in East Granby, Connecticut,” he noted, “so it’s not a long drive up here.”
“It’s been a blessing to have Jason with us,” said Rose-Langston. “He’s been so generous.”
In fact, everyone on the team has been generous, he noted. “I think there’s a real spirit with this play, a sense that this is an important production to be putting on now.”
“Torch Song” takes place Jan. 26-28 and Feb. 2-4 at the Blueroom at CitySpace.
To order tickets, visit easthamptontheater.com.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.