Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: September, 2013

The Picture of Dorian Gray

The notorious aesthete Oscar Wilde believed that beauty is be-all and end-all. After The Painting of Dorian Gray met with moral outrage upon its publication in 1890, he appended a Preface to the novel in which he wrote:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things….

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.

They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

On those grounds alone, Wilde would have appreciated Synetic Theater’s stage adaptation, which delivers a dazzling bounty of beauty beyond what no other local theater company even dreams. Wilde might go further and deem the show’s rapt opening-night audience “the elect” if, and insofar as, they shared his belief that beautiful art means only beauty.

There’s a plenitude of sensory pleasures in sight and sound on stage, that’s for sure. Foremost is the cast of ten dancer-actors, who have been choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili in wildly imagined ways that emanate inner emotion and beam it out into the house. This effect most pleasantly surprises in the show’s several thrilling pas de deux: when the adored Dorian (Dallas Tolentino) dances with Basil (Robert Bowen Smith), the infatuated artist who paints his portrait…when Dorian dances with his Portrait-come-to-life (Philip Fletcher), first in attraction, later in antagonism…when Dorian dances with Sybil (Rachael Jacobs), the comely-but-doomed actress whom he loves then dumps. There are moments in their movements such as the mind’s eye would like to capture and tweet like a Vine vid but can’t—because they vanish as instantly as they appear.

Then there’s the evocative set full of unfilled frames (designed by Daniel Pinha), the dramatically primal lighting (Colin K. Bills), the elegantly apropos costumes (Kendra Rai), the inscrutably lovely multimedia (Riki K.), the astonishingly textured sound  (Thomas Sowers and Irakli Kavsadze). And above all there’s the powerfully affecting music composed by Konstantine Lortkipanidze. His score for The Painting of Dorian Gray features an indelible motif that is the equal or better of anything composed for film by James Horner, John Williams, or Philip Glass. I’m not hinting that Hollywood should poach him. I’m saying Lortkipanidze’s music for theater is also reason to go to this show.

Wilde’s Preface to the novel contains this stern advisory, which I interpret as a note to anyone posing as a critic:

All art is at once surface and symbol.

Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

Which means, if Wilde is correct, I’ll soon be at risk of something dire—because I’m about to deal with a dimension of The Painting of Dorian Gray that didn’t work: Wilde’s basic story. Though it serves sufficiently as framework for splendid scenes of sound and movement, it doesn’t work dramatically. The text seems archly archival. What was shocking in Victorian times now seems forced. And despite estimable efforts by adapter-director Paata Tsikurishvili and his multidextrous cast, the story’s tragic arcs do not cohere within the beautiful context that Synetic Theater has created.

This show has more spoken words than any previous Synetic Theater work. From my glance at the novel, it appears that Tsikurishvili and dramaturg Nathan Weinberger have excerpted much of the dialog verbatim. The script is therefore surfeited with Wildean aphorisms, quips, and epigrams, which initially amuse but after not long seem labored  (as they would not on the page). This has the enervating effect of assigning the actors to be mouthpieces instead of characters with compelling throughlines. Moreover, it makes glaringly obvious that as distilled here, Wilde’s allegorical plot is driven more by an abstract philosophical debate about aesthetics versus ethics than by clear character quests and convincing motivations.

Wilde’s not-so-hidden agenda is to argue that hedonism is morally neutral (the tenet by which he lived). His Preface to the novel tips us off to this thesis:

No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy is an unpardonable mannerism of style.

Okay, got it. Beautiful art is beyond right and wrong. (Wilde justified his own epicureanism as being beyond right and wrong as well: It was simply pursuit of beauties.) But to paraphrase the playwright Moss Hart (who famously said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union”): If you want to defend a precept, write a dissertation. In drama (as distinct from comedy), the net result of Wilde’s clever but cool and cerebral pontificating on this self-exculpatory point is that it keeps us the audience at a distance from emotionally engaging with the characters as we would wish—which leaves us watching tragic falls that feel so what?

Wilde’s story is centrally about fatal infatuation and terminal narcissism—with Dorian functioning both as object of Basil’s homoerotic desire and as desirer of first Sybil then of various vices and debauches. This much Synetic Theater succeeds at brilliantly. That Basil is head over easel in lust with Dorian could not be plainer. Dorian’s fleeting fling with Sybil heats up the stage. The scene in the opium den Dorian visits is eye-popping (a spectacle of flung paint by a hopped-up Jackson Pollock). And having  the Painting danced by a mirror image of Dorian yields genuinely original resonance, not only in the early exploratory homoerotic passages between the two but also in their later frenzied combat (muscularly choreographed by Ben Cunis). Wilde would have been impressed. Not to mention smitten.

So though I have to be honest about what doesn’t work and why, I must applaud Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili’s grand ambition. The company they cofounded is a treasure. This time out their reach somewhat exceeded their grasp, but I admire their audacity enormously. Because better than beautiful art is brave art.

The Velocity of Autumn

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

For $64,000, the funny thing about aging is…?

Funny like strange or funny like—?

Like LOL.

Oh, okay, lemme think. [Thinks a long time; lame music plays.]

Haven’t got all day.

Please, I need more time!

Come on, clock’s ticking.

No, wait!

Nope. Time’s up. Your final answer. Now.

Um…um…lemme guess— [Over sound of nasty buzzer:] The Velocity of Autumn?

Correct! The answer to the $64,000 question “What could possibly be funny about old age?” is Eric Coble’s deliriously hilarious new comedy, The Velocity of Autumn!

[Leaving isolation booth to audience applause:] Whew! Who knew?

There’s a snappy-happy production smartly directed by Molly Smith now delighting playgoers at Arena Stage. You should hurry up and catch it.

Um, why’s that? 

Because life is short and you deserve the last belly laugh.

The Velocity of Autumn is indeed a wonderfully well-wrought comedy. The night I was there, the laughter let up only during  passages that pulsed with the play’s emotional core, a touching story of mother-and-son resentment and reconciliation. And the audience loved it. They rose to their feet at the end as one.

The octogenarian Alexandra (played with boundless spunk by Estelle Parsons) has barricaded herself in her Brooklyn brownstone armed with dozens of molotov cocktails. Her three grown children are plotting to relocate her to a home. But this is her home, dammit. She is determined to stay put in it till death. And if anyone messes with her intention, she’ll blow up the nabe.

Into this arsenal of angry defiance comes her middle-age son Chris (played with fine-spun sensitivity by Stephen Spinella), who enters clambering through the window having climbed a tree. A standoff ensues, a comic contretemps between this would-be artist (who is still a lost boy) and his apparently deranged mother (who is actually sharp as a tack). The spry-witted Alexandra proceeds to treat us to such a spate of hysterical one-liners about late-life decrepitude that our lungs gasp for air.

Two rich, rewarding, and intertwined stories are going on here. One is an outrageously over-the-top rendering of a real-life drama now being played out in countless families across the country: boomers wrestling with their responsibilities to care for infirm parents, elders dreading the loss of autonomy that lies ahead. The landscape that an actual Chris and Alexandra would inhabit is one where so-called universal design is promoted as an aid to independent living and the grassroots “Village” movement (now in several District neighborhoods) offers help to those growing older who wish to stay in their own homes. Judging from all the elderly in attendance, several of whom had mobility challenges of their own, not a few folks there felt a personal connection to Parsons’ superb portrayal of Alexandra that may well have transformed her mother lode of humor into a load off their mind.

Alexandra has several funny riffs on the theme of wanting to be alone. She was alone as a free-spirited young artist when she traveled the world. She met her husband, settled down, and raised children—which interrupted the solitude she really relished. And now she is again alone at last. Alexandra likes being alone. (“I’m good at it,” she says.) But Alexandra’s funny quips notwithstanding, the reality is that old age can be isolating in a not-at-all-fun way—which is why The Velocity of Autumn comes close to being a kind of theatrical  therapy. For those who can relate, it offers 90 laugh-filled minutes of respite from feeling alone before winter sets in. I suspect Coble knows this but astutely never lets on. (This play is deservedly destined for Broadway, after all, not Retirement Living TV.)

The other story is about the lifeline between mother and son, a tether stretched nearly to nonexistence over the years but now—in Chris and Alexandra’s sometimes-brutal verbal tug-of-war—stands a chance of being again a tie that binds. Coble introduces this rapprochement almost by stealth: The two begin talking about art, going to art museums together, looking at art, talking about it. In a tender reminiscence, Chris realizes that his mother has taught him how to look, how to watch, how to see. Over the the course of Coble’s exquisitely written script, mother and son relearn to see each other. And as performed by Spinella and Parsons—who deliver a master class in acting—it is a beautifully hopeful and satisfying sight to behold.

Moliére’s Don Juan

On top of the antic hilarity in Faction of Fools’ new production of Moliére’s Don Juan, I had the funny feeling while watching this company’s work for the first time that I’d been a fool for having avoided it. What got me in the door was actually not its distinctive Commedia dell’Arte performing style; in truth what had kept me away was my preconception about that style.

Mainly I wanted to see Don Juan the play. I wanted to see how Molière’s classic comedy about a feckless cad and serial seducer of women would play today.

Times have changed. We are very unlike the playgoers in 17th-century Paris whom Don Juan first scandalized. However leeringly they might have found alluring Don Juan’s rapacious behavior, they also would have found it reprehensible on religious grounds (or at least they all knew that’s what their church expected them to do). But we no longer live under a uniform doctrinal thumb. As a culture, we’ve pretty much flipped that one the bird.

Then again, times have not changed. The womanizing character of Don Juan, which played for so many laughs and life lessons so long ago, still fascinates. Today he is EveryStud. Or EveryPrick. Depending upon your point of view.

Molière has a well-deserved reputation for delivering laughs. Even on the page in a good modern translation, there are riffs and ripostes and ribald one-liners that still amuse and surprise—as between Don Juan and his faithful servant Sganarelle (who knows his boss is up to no good), or between Don Juan and his jilted wife Donna Elvira (who gets the dude’s number, too). It’s as if Molière knew all along that he was toying with his audience’s conflicting Saturday-night and Sunday-morning personalities (to reference Dick Morris’s famously apt characterization of Bill Clinton, an observation with which Monica Lewinsky reportedly agreed). Way back there in 1660, Moliere cast the irresistible bait of his priapic protagonist before upscale patrons at the Palais Royal theater, then pulled a sanctimoniously punishing switcheroo. Molière’s Don Juan comes to a rather bad end, which it would be no spoiler to reveal: The horndog goes to hell.

Now, I know I may be taking a comedy way too seriously here. But hey, that’s my schtick: focusing on life and art with double vision. Besides it’s the true backstory for the extraordinary theater-going experience I discovered in my first encounter with Faction of Fools.

My wary preconception, which fell flat on its tush, was that Faction of Fools would be shallow. All slapstick and silliness, no smart substance. But dang was I wrong.

For starters there’s the set: a classy-looking art museum hung with classic paintings and bracketed by well-loined statues. Two large paintings on either side of double doors upstage center turn out to be projections. And during the action in writer/director/choreographer Matthew R. Wilson’s immensely inventive rendition, these two screens serve to show, as if activated by actors’ pantomimed clickers, other classic paintings and images that punctuate scenes with visual punch lines. (Later in Act One these screens serve to show spectacular sword fights in hysterically funny shadow play.) The artworks’ historicity has a cumulatively enthralling effect. Given Don Juan’s probably-porny-for-its-time treatment of women, for instance, all the classical paintings that pop in of the female form serve to frame the story, and its ample humor, so we can perceive it and enjoy it free of contemporary pandering and prurience peddling. I cannot say whether that intent was what prompted Klyph Stanford’s utterly brilliant scenic, lighting, and projection design. But the overall conception is so intelligent and illuminating that I look back on my expectation of shallowness with chagrin.

Wilson’s script, an adaption that takes more liberties than the eponyomous libertine, is a ceaselessly silly mashup of pop culture and original plot. In Molière, Don Juan’s incessant sleeping around is always prefaced by nuptials—making him a bigamist yet saving sex for marriage. (Bawdy Saturday, lawdy Sunday.) Wilson keeps this story point but executes it with howlingly funny flair: He has Charlotte, the lothario’s latest lovely, break into “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Don Juan and his lackey Sganarelle then join in—and all three dance à la Beyonce! Wilson also throws in learned allusions to high culture. When the clown character Pierrot is suddenly heartbroken because the ingenue of his dreams is getting snogged by Don Juan, he sobs silently to an operatic sample from Pagliacci.

So silly yet so smart. The perfect theatrical synthesis of highbrow and lowbrow. All of which accounts for my newfound admiration for the Faction of Fools unique esthetic and performing style. (They’re already much acclaimed, I’m just late to the party—last year they got the Helen Hayes/John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company.) The company doesn’t just dust off Commedia dell’Arte; it reanimates, reinvigorates, and reinterprets for our time a centuries-old connector between players and people. We’re very used to seeing Commedia’s populist techniques all over—in everything from sketch comedy to satire reviews, movies to YouTube: stock characters, broad physical comedy, fast-paced action, wicked-good wordplay. Faction of Fools does all that and more. We see the actors in tradition-inspired masks, which (not unlike Halloween) gives them and us complete permission to act out in ways we might not ordinarily dare, but that give us a good glimpse at something primal we all share. Call it our Saturday-night and Sunday-morning selves. And sometimes we just gotta have a good laugh together about that.


(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Having heard tantalizing details about Bell in a pre-opening interview, I attended the National Geographic Live production with the sort of eager/anxious anticipation one might have watched the Silver Dart, a flying contraption Bell invented, take off on its test flight.

Will it have lift-off? Will it fly? Will it stay airborne till landing?

Among the many fun infobits we learn in Bell, a one-man play about Alexander Graham Bell, is that Alex (as intimates knew him) had a seriously competitive streak. He resented being known only as “the telephone man” whilst his nemesis Thomas Edison got tons of attention for a host of inventions. And as Alex peevishly tells us in Jim Lehrer’s fascinating playscript, the Silver Dart got off the ground two months after the Wright Brothers beat him to it. Well, hells bells, Alex came up with a whole bunch of cool stuff too! Yet he’s remembered for one ringy-dingy! And as is revealed to us with thoroughgoing theatricality through Rick Foucheaux masterfully nuanced portrayal, Bell harbored a begrudging drat! about that up until the day he died.

At rise, on a spectacularly apt set (designed by Tony Cisek), littered with tactile evidence of Bell’s perfervid imagination, we find Bell on his deathbed, talking to his beloved wife and lifelong helpmeet, Mabel—who, we learn later, was literally reading his lips, for she was deaf. Suddenly there comes a shift, an actor’s artful transformation enhanced by fluidly specific lighting (designed by Dan Covey), and Bell the character begins talking directly to us the audience in the contemporary voice of a man who wants to explain himself to history and who decides to do so by winningly engaging us in what becomes by turns reminiscence, reverie, rant, and rip-roaring good storytelling.

We get inside his head. And then he gets inside ours.

When Bell begins to evoke Mabel’s memory, a most moving stage picture appears—with stunning authentic-source  projections (designed by Jared Mezzocchi), accompanied by beautifully time-transporting music (in Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design). Suddenly the inner emotion of their marriage—a great love story if ever there was one—fills the stage, and Mabel comes to life as the true tailwind and stabilizer behind Bell’s lofty genius.

There are also lots of jokes. Really funny one-liners. Plus some hilariously anachronistic gags about the cellphones and smartphones in our pockets. At one point Bell asks us to turn them on—which has got to be a first in modern theater. And as silly as that sounds, it’s exactly apropos all the material Lehrer has mined to make this man ring for us a whole new bell.

To be honest, this oddly originated contraption—it would never have been put together had it not fit nicely with the 125th anniversary of the National Geographic Society, of which Bell was second president—had for me a slightly unsteady liftoff. At the beginning, I sensed Lehrer flipping from notecard to notecard in his obviously assiduous research in order to pack in exposition. The pretext that the mind of Bell itself was easily distracted and often free-associated from inspiration to inspiration gives Lehrer plenty of character motivation for jumpy backstorying, and Foucheux performs it all with absorbing aplomb. And quite frankly, I’m not sure but what this edutainment entry wasn’t the best of all possible ways to start off. But for me Bell didn’t really take flight until Lehrer and Foucheux launch into the play’s fully rounded and immersive stories. The first of these is about Bell’s effort to locate the bullet lodged somewhere inside the recently shot President Garfield using his new-fangled metal detector—which, Bell tells us in one of many amazing asides, is a forerunner to the electronic strip searches we endure in airports. There are so many oh-wow moments from then on that we forget completely that this airborne wonder ever sputtered.

Near the end there comes a passage that easily qualifies as the “warts-and-all” piece of the portrait. It would be unfair to give it away, but it’s clearly a dark patch of Bell’s past, one his contemporary self agonizes over. And though it cannot but have given keepers of the golden-framed National Geographic brand some cause to wince, its presence in this play produces a most uplifting effect. We’ve come to know this man’s warm and loyal heart, this man’s quirky and self-rightous peeves, this man’s prolific and visionary mind—and now we get to meet his conscience. In all its retrospective remorse. Right then and there on stage. And it’s a brilliant instance of what theater does best of all: keep our full humanity alive and well.

From love story to levity and everywhere else this illuminating play takes us, director Jeremy Skidmore control-towers a fleet of top-flight stagecraft artists and a superb solo aviator with surety, subtlety, and surprise. This production is the peer of anything on offer in town. And one cannot help but wonder whether it will get the life beyond Nat Geo that it deserves.

I’ll take a flyer and hope yes.

After the Revolution

(This review was originally written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Who would have guessed that a family drama about everyday ethics and far-left ideology could be so engrossing and engaging, the characters so real and riveting, that what happens on stage enters one’s mind as if the fourth wall has fallen?—as if the the play has liberated a new theater zone?—as if the tension between character and conscience seems more alive than in real life?

After you see After the Revolution at Theater J—as any thoughtful theatergoer with a moral compass and a pulse must—you’ll know what I’m talking about. This brilliant play by Amy Herzog, in a brilliant production directed by Eleanor Holdridge, invites us into a shared experience that is in its own way…revolutionary.

It’s the turn of the century, 1999, and three generations of the Joseph family, whose history is steeped in Communist politics, are about to come to terms with their ideals in the face of reality. Even before we meet each fascinating one of them, we are met by a set (eloquently designed by Misha Kachman) that says post-revolution “red” all over: A vast blood-red curtain hangs draped in the background. The stage surface is black with enigmatic, odd-shaped patches of red (countries deformed and split apart after the fall of the Soviet Union? blood on the floor spilled by Stalin now staining and straining Communist dogma?). Upon this ambiguous landscape are situated settings of hominess and human connection: A living room, a dining-room table, a bedroom, a table for two at a restaurant. The contradictions in this stage picture speak volumes before a single line is spoken.

Paterfamilias Joe Joseph, who notoriously refused to name names during Senator McCarthy’s inquisition, is deceased, and his devoted widow, Vera (Nancy Robinette), keeps the flame of their shared certainty burning. In her two baby-boomer sons, Leo Joseph (Jeff Allin) and Ben Joseph (Peter Birkenhead), however, the flame flickers with somewhat less conviction. Plus, they are privy to a shocking disclosure about their father that will soon rock their ideological world and put family ties to ethical tests that will captivate us for two of the fastest-moving acts any playwright can muster.

But this is not just “any” playwright.

When I saw Herzog’s 4000 Miles at The Studio Theatre last year—in which her wonderful character Vera also appears (a little deaf, a bit daft, but sharp as a tack)—I knew that Herzog belonged on my short list of favorite English-speaking playwrights. Besides her astounding command of form and substance, her knack for the quirks and rhythms of character-revealing dialog—which the entire cast played to perfection—has a remarkable effect: It instantly seems recognizable and true to life even if it’s something you’ve never heard of or thought of before. What you might think (from reading the very informative program notes) will be a heavy slog through radical politics and history (which you maybe can’t remember or maybe never knew) becomes in Herzog’s sure text one illuminating revelation after another—so easy to follow (because it’s always in-the-moment human) that all you get lost in is the performance.

Ben Joseph, now married to Mel (Susan Rome), has two gen-X daughters: Jess Joseph (Elizabeth Jernigan), who has been in and out of rehab with barely a political pilot light, and Emma Joseph, whose storyline of blazingly radical political advocacy emits heat and light throughout. Emma (Megan Anderson) is dedicated to raising money for the defense fund of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the real-life black revolutionary then on death row for killing a cop. She runs a foundation (named after her legendary grandfather Joe) where her feminist fellow-traveler boyfriend Miguel (Carlos Saldana) also works and for which she gets big bucks from an elder philanthropist, Morty (James Slaughter). Herzog’s use of Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose supporters confronted ideological and ethical ambiguities in his case, functions intriguingly in the play to mirror the ideological and ethical ambiguities now confronting Communism’s true believers.

The Joseph family’s interwoven stories unfold in poignant scenes, between which we hear beautiful guitar-and-cello interludes (composed by Matthew M. Nielson), punctuated by lyrical shifts of lighting (designed by Andrew Cissna). Meanwhile director Holdridge pulls our focus from scene to scene, character to character, with a kind of grace that is almost cinematic. The overall effect is almost enchanting, even as we feel the undercurrent of realpolitik and a family pitched into crises of conscience.

Herzog has said that she based the Joseph family in part on her own. The values she grew up in came from Marx. She was a red-diaper baby. Yet among the many extraordinary aspects of her dramatization of the Joseph family is that it speaks deep truths no matter one’s personal political beliefs and no matter one’s own family history. I would not go so far as to call it an Our Town. But it is certainly an Our Family of Conscience.

From some morally murky materials, and her human-all-too-human characters’ honest efforts to find their best way to the best future, Herzog, in the hands of a solid cast, has forged a play that is monumental.

Torch Song Trilogy

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Some plays don’t age well; they get dated but dusted off anyway. Some time-travel okay, and get mounted in modern dress. But rare is the work that—while still set in the period years ago when it was written—only now can be seen thriving in the very prime of its life. Such a play is Torch Song Trilogy, which has been given an immensely entertaining and compassionate new production directed by Michael Kahn at The Studio Theatre. There is no Best Stroke of Genius award in theater, but if there were, Kahn’s inspired choice to reignite Torch Song would win in a walk.

This triptych of one-acts about gay love, loss, and longing by Harvey Fierstein was first produced off-off Broadway in 1978 and had a ground-breaking successful commercial run in the early 1980s (before same-sex couples were gossip-column celebrities, before gay marriage was remotely imagined). But it cannot be “contemporized”; there is too much period-specific detail (for instance its jaw-droppingly hilarious first-act pre-AIDS backroom scene). A playgoer could reasonably worry that this work was at high risk of seeming a museum piece, a cultural time capsule, its emotional shelf life expired. But Kahn knew better. He rightly recognized this is a play for today.

Yesterday I watched Torch Song come ablaze with magnitudes more humor and heart than ever before. (I get to say that unequivocally having three times seen the original New York production starring—as the tart-tongued downtown drag performer Arnold—Harvey Fierstein himself.)

Fierstein wrote Torch Song to mend a heart broken by a recent breakup with a man he had not stopped loving—hence the title’s evocation of carrying a torch. Fierstein had achieved modest notoriety as a drag performer in Lower East Side club circles, and he wrote the lead role for himself (indeed the play opens with a touchingly funny monologue by Arnold as he puts on makeup and a wig). The character’s rhythms, diction, and wise-cracking wit are so thoroughly Fiersteinian that the play can’t really work unless the actor playing Arnold pays Harvey some respect.

All of which makes Brandon Uranowitz’s transcendent turn in the role so profound and astounding. Uranowitz gets the part’s clever text just as dextrously as Fierstein, flip mannerisms and all, but Uranowitz dives beneath the witty repartee—into the reservoir of hurt it rises up from—and brings to the surface an Arnold whose emotional arc Fierstein scripted brilliantly but that Uranowitz now channels definitively. By the third-act scene with Arnold’s mother when Uranowitz opens the floodgates on that reservoir—no jokes now, the only cracks the ones in the wall that has dammed his enormous pain—we become witnesses to a depth of feeling so intrinsically human it has no name.

Torch Song Trilogy has been deservedly lauded for the way it treats love, loss, and longing as universals. It does through comedic drama what torch songs do through music. Yet over the years some have surmised it was written voyeuristically for straights such that gays could get a kick out of it, or written winkingly for gays with a nod to the ostensibly tender sensibilities of straights. That’s all moot now; that was last millennium; we live in a different era. This new production at Studio uncovers the emotional soul of a play that was presciently there all along but that only now, post-DOMA, can be seen and felt fully beyond what once quaintly sorted apart our hearts by “sexual persuasion.”

In the first act Arnold falls hard for Ed, who is bisexual (which Arnold disputes but which Fierstein simply posits). Ed dithers about declaring his love for Arnold and, as solidly and sympathetically played by Todd Lawson, his own wonderfully rendered emotional arc takes on genuine will-he-or-won’t-he suspense. The character could easily seem merely a foil for Arnold’s desperate projections, but Lawson’s Ed is a fully agentic partner in propelling the play’s affectional momentum, including in his sweet second-act scenes with Laurel (Sarah Grace Wilson), whom Ed falls in love with and marries.

The role of Laurel is perhaps the trickiest in the play. On the rebound from two prior romances with bisexual men, Laurel welcomes Ed’s ex Arnold and Arnold’s new lover Alan for what she expects to be a fun weekend in the country with her loving and faithful boyfriend Ed. Um, probably not gonna happen, and Fierstein’s depiction of Laurel in this inauspicious situation could easily come off as a contrivance. But as Wilson plays Laurel, with pitch-perfect credibility, the setup tickles us silly then leaves a lump in our throat.

Arnold’s formidable mother arrives in act three. The role of Ma (which I saw launch the career of Golden Girls‘ Estelle Getty) is among the great parts in contemporary comedy for women whose faces wear well-earned lines. Gordana Rashovich plays the hell out of her, with a knockout range of comic timing and pure pathos. The scenes with her gay son that turn on her own widowhood so raise the emotional ante of the play that it’s as if gales of laughter simply must cease so we can take in Ma’s raw truth.

The cast is wonderfully rounded out by the appealing and eager Alex Mills (as Arnold’s model boyfriend Alan), the hip and energetic Michael Lee Brown (as a foster teenager, David), and the sultry Ashleigh King (whose chanteusey Lady Blues, accompanied on piano by George Fulginiti-Shakar, delivers some lovely torch songs composed by Eric Shimelonis).

The visual design—set (James Noone), lighting (Peter West), costumes (Frank Labovitz), projections (Adrian Rooney)—seemed at first glance kind of unremarkable and restrained. And then it hit me: This entire show has the uncanny effect of being not only authentic to the period but also a spot-on emulation of theatrical production values from the time. It’s very subtle, but it’s consistent with the insight and sensitivity that are evident throughout.

Will Torch Song Trilogy be as richly rewarding a theater experience ten, twenty, thirty years from now? No one can say. History has been moving in some mysterious and surprising ways lately, especially as pertains to social and political perspectives on gender and affairs of the heart. But trust me on this: Three decades ago, no one could have foreseen that Torch Song Trilogy would pack such a powerful wallop in 2013 that if tickets got any hotter they’d be flaming.