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Torch Song Trilogy (Eternity Playhouse, Sydney)

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Finger clicks to Sydney’s newest jazz club, the Eternity Playhouse, which is gently swaying to some very smooth sounds. The American songbook – Gershwin, Porter, Holliday and the like – is in the capable hands of top-rate crooners channelling love and loss in the smoky, dimly lit confines.

Which would be a great night out in itself. But there’s also a pretty good play happening here too, woven between numbers with uncanny skill. It’s a little dated, perhaps, but comfortably old-fashioned like a good pair of slippers.

Or like Arnold Beckoff, the lovelorn heart of Torch Song Trilogy. He’s the good Jewish boy desperate to settle down in the suburbs. An old-school romantic from another era, or at least the 1970s and ‘80s, he’s patiently waiting to be swept off his aching feet.

The towering stilettos of his drag act don’t help the achiness. Nor the sexually charged environment Arnold seems to have settled into. In fact, after an extended scene watching him penetrated by an anonymous gentleman in a dingy sex den, you might question the wholesome motives of our loveable protagonist.

But stay tuned. This play – three of them in fact, stitched together into a near-four-hour night of musical theatre – takes the audience on quite the journey. From the pre-AIDS fairytale of 1978 New York (the first play, International Stud), it subverts into a Coward-esque romcom (the second, Fugue in a Nursery) and, finally, kitchen sink drama somewhere between Sex and the City and Everybody Loves Raymond (Widows and Children First!). Maybe Arnold CAN have it all, if only his man could be honest and his mother could get off his case.

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Imraan Daniels

It is, of course, all from the fabulous mind of Harvey Fierstein, the gravel-voiced diva who took a semi-autobiographical off-off-Broadway cabaret act to Broadway and Hollywood. Before there was Angels In America, there was Torch Song Trilogy. And before there was gay marriage, there was Arnold, a gay man rooted in traditional relationship values, out of shame or aspiration or probably both.

For a radical play of underclass life, it’s the conservatism that stands out. Then and even now. There’s an encroaching domesticity to the story, enhanced by this fine Darlinghurst Theatre re-mount which plasters up the tacky wallpaper before your eyes (Imogen Ross designed the versatile set). It might be suffocating to some but it’s Arnold’s dream, longing for children and a partner, in that order, to escape the downtown nightclubs and replicate his parents’ respectable existence.

That, of course, will still resonate with many, now marriage is on the table for all. It’s a tension between fitting in and standing out – inherently political, but profoundly personal – that so many gay men and women, and the spectrum of gender and sexual nonconformity, wrestle with now and perhaps forever.

Simon Corfield played Arnold in Darlinghurst’s admired 2013 production and returns (along with director Stephen Colyer) by popular demand in 2018. It’s a performance never completely liberated from Fierstein’s, whose distinctive voice is embedded into the DNA of the show, but it’s a skilful and moving one all the same. And Corfield leads, by example, an ensemble of rare quality.

Each character orbits Arnold in a trail that rings true. There’s Ed (coolly capable Tim Draxl), the cocksure man of Arnold’s dreams – if only he’d leave the missus. Laurel (pitch-perfect Hilary Cole), the woman more tolerant than most in a bisexual love triangle. Alan (lubricious Stephen Madsen), a perfect male specimen smarter than he looks. David (a vivacious Imraan Daniels), the wise-arse foster kid auditioning to fill out Arnold’s family portrait. And in a final-act storm, mother Beckoff (a ferocious Kate Raison, pictured below), torn between maternal instinct and social norm.

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This material sings not simply through the sublime musicality of the performers (with musical director Phil Scott at the piano). It sings because Colyer has found a tone and rhythm for the drama that bridges three substantially different plays, at least two different worlds and the fission in desires we have for our lives. Fierstein tapped into a suburban anxiety that would outlive legislated discrimination and widespread social intolerance with humour and tremendous heart.

It makes Torch Song Trilogy, at least this commendable production, some sort of minor miracle. Go for the songs. Stay for every wonderful moment in between.

Torch Song Trilogy is at Eternity Playhouse until August 26. (Main image: Stephen Madsen and Simon Corfield)

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