HARVEY’S SONG

Gallery Players carry a ’Torch’ for Fierstein

The Brooklyn Paper

Decades after Bensonhurst native Harvey Fierstein wrote and starred in the gay classic, "Torch Song Trilogy," his groundbreaking collection of one-act plays is still widely considered a brilliant, relevant work.

Park Slope’s Gallery Players, of which Fierstein is a founding member, is presenting a new production of "Torch Song Trilogy" through Dec. 10. Directed by Stephen Nachamie, this staging features well-known actor/comedian/musical director/radio personality, Seth Rudetsky, as Arnold, the semi-autobiographical character Fierstein originated.

Set in the 1970s, the show follows Arnold, a young drag queen, as he struggles to find his place in a predominantly straight world.

"It’s the most exciting time," Rudetsky told GO Brooklyn in a phone interview Tuesday. "I would literally do the show every day of my life if I could. I love it so much. It’s so brilliantly written. I can’t believe it didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize. It’s so thrilling to be able to do something I think is so meaningful and yet so entertaining. It is so hilarious and so moving, and yet it’s so important for people to see."

For the irrepressible Rudetsky, working with a cast he adores and starring in a show he has treasured all his life is truly a dream come true.

"I was the president of ITS, the International Thespian Society, and I went to go see it when I was still in high school, and I found my old diary entry and I wrote: ’Saw "Torch Song Trilogy." It was fantastic! That lead guy has a weird speaking voice,’ " he said, referring to Fierstein’s trademark, raspy elocution. "So, I remember seeing it on Broadway and I remember loving it."

Admitting he was a bit daunted by the notion of following in the footsteps of the five-time Tony Award-winner, Rudetsky says he initially saw the role as "so Harvey" that he wondered how he should approach it.

"Especially the Brooklynese," he confided. "And there is like weird grammatical stuffthat, obviously, is the way he talks, and I was like: ’It’s not me! It’s not me!’ And I was freaking out."

The actor says he was finally able to embrace the role and make it his own after a friend encouraged him to release his need to "be" Harvey Fierstein.

"Now I feel like it is completely me," he related. "I just got an e-mail from some guy saying, ’I can’t believe how natural you are saying these lines.’ And that made me so happy, because I really feel like I’m just me now. It doesn’t feel like I have to be Harvey at all."

While Rudetsky has considerable experience holding a stage - he not only hosts the radio show "Seth’s Broadway Chatterbox," but he also starred in the acclaimed one-man-show, "Rhapsody in Seth" - he says playing Arnold in "Torch Song Trilogy" has been his most challenging role to date because the play is so long.

"’Rhapsody in Seth’ was an hour and 20 minutes, and this is double that," he noted. "I’ve never, ever done anything like this, but [Nachamie] was very good. We kind of took it play by play, a play a week and I would just kind of memorize a play a week, so that was kind of the most demanding thing.

"And then I was very intimidated reading the thing, thinking: ’Oh my God! How am I ever going to be this emotional on stage?’ Because I have never played anything this emotional. I am pretty much a comedian, and every role I’ve ever played has pretty much been comedy. And I’ve never even been interested in playing an emotional role."

But Rudetsky says the text is so "well-written," he had no need to use tricks of the acting trade - like thinking of dead puppies or ailing parents - to conjure up tears.

"I don’t have to do anything to be crying in the show," he confessed. "I so connect with the emotions, it’s not hard at all. It’s really an honor and a joy."

The actor says he thinks audiences will continue to be inspired by how Arnold, considered by some in his life as "the lowest of the low," is able to figure out how to live with dignity.

"He doesn’t give in to what other people say about him, and he winds up forming this beautiful life for himself," Rudetsky explained. "When you see it, it just makes you want to live a better life. You see someone who could have felt awful about himself and made all of the wrong choices and become suicidal and instead he’s like: ’You’re all messed up! I’m not going to be an angry person and act out. I’m going to live a healthy life and let love into it.’ And that’s what happens. It’s very inspirational ... Plus, I think, it really opens people’s eyes to the prejudice against gay people."

Rudetsky says the show effectively conveys how hard it is to be gay when every movie, book and billboard celebrates heterosexual life.

"That’s incredible pressure to grow up with," emphasized the winner of Stand-Up New York’s "Funniest Gay Male" award. "That the world is straight and you’re not. This was in the 1970s when he wrote this, and it’s still relevant today. It’s so not dated. If anything, it’s ahead of this time!"

So, what does Fierstein think of this new production of his work?

"He’s sent supportive e-mails back and forth," director Nachamie said. "He’s busy on some other projects at the moment, but he will be coming to see the show at some point, we hear. He was very supportive of the casting choice of Seth.

"He gave us some words of wisdom before we started production, and he’s been very supportive. [He told us] just to stick to the truth of the play. That even though everybody kind of thinks of the character as him, that it is written about a guy who is a certain age. He is going through his late 20s, early 30s, kind of finding his identity and defining his relationships in the world."

In a small theater where audience members sometimes feel comfortable enough to talk back to the stage, it’s easy to see how an actor might be anxious about the playwright and originator of his role coming to watch him perform. That said, Rudetsky says he was thrilled to hear Fierstein intends to drop by for a performance.

"It would be such an honor to have him see me do it, because I am so respectful of his work," Rudetsky said. "It would be amazing to have him there, but I would definitely be incredibly intimidated. I told everybody in the cast not to tell me, but, of course, I’m going to hear some crazy laugh, and I’ll know that it’s him."

 

The Gallery Players’ production of "Torch Song Trilogy" continues through Dec. 10 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. The theater is located on 14th Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues in Park Slope. Tickets are $18 for adults and $14 for senior citizens and children ages 12 and younger and may be purchased online at www.galleryplayers.com or by calling TheaterMania at (212) 352-3101.

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