Director and playwright Moises Kaufman is the founder of Tectonic Theatre Project where he co-wrote and directed The Laramie Project. He also wrote and directed Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde as well as 33 Variations, the latter’s Broadway production starring Jane Fonda. He received a Tony nomination for his direction of Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, I Am My Own Wife. This season, he has directed – with the keenest of eyes and the kindest of hearts – the hit revival of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song at Second Stage Theater which stars Michael Urie. The play, set in the 1970s and 1980s, tells the story of of a drag performer, Arnold Beckoff, and his relationships with his bisexual lover and his foster son and his fearsomely loving mother. In 2015, Kaufman was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama.
A graduate of The Juilliard School’s Drama Division, Michael Urie received the 2002 John Houseman Prize for Excellence in Classical Theatre from the school, but he became known – maybe he was putting some of his Commedia dell’arte training to commercial use – as Marc St. James in the television series Ugly Betty. Urie originated the role of Rudi Gernreich in the 2009 off-Broadway play The Temperamentals, which told the story of the founding of the early LGBT rights organization the Mattachine Society. He won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor for his portrayal of Gernriech and received a Clarence Derwent Award for his performance in the one-man show Buyer and Cellar. He also appeared as Prior Walter in the Signature Theatre Company’s revival of Angels in America and, earlier this season, he gave a hilariously inspired performance off-Broadway in The Government Inspector. His performance of Arnold Beckoff in Second Stage’s Torch Song is glorious, both touching and tenacious.
MOISES KAUFMAN: Wasn’t it lovely to see the people who were at Torch Song last night? Carol Burnett was there.
MICHAEL URIE: And Reed Birney. Everyone seems to be coming to the show. Every night there’s someone else in the Green Room to say hello. Opening night we had some of the original cast – Matthew Broderick and Fisher Stevens and Brian Kerwin, who played Ed, the bisexual lover, in the movie version and on tour. Jonathan Hadary, who played Arnold on Broadway after Harvey left, was there. I was in Angels in America with him. He played Roy Cohn.
MK: Judith Light came. She loved it.
MU: We love her. She’s a wonderful lady. Harvey told me that the original audience for the play wasn’t gay. But it’s the theatre, so some of the audience had to be gay. It’s the also theater, so most of the audience was and is old as well. But I think what is so great about this play – and why it was such a hit on Broadway back then and why it is such a hit for us now – is because it is universal. Everybody can relate to this play in some way, even though you’re not gay or bisexual or in the foster system or you’re a straight woman who dated a gay guy or you’re a mother …
MK: … struggling with a son and his sexuality.
MU: Even if you don’t specifically relate to the problems that the characters in the play have, they are relatable problems. Harvey said that for years and years and years, people of all shapes and sizes would come up to him and say, “That’s my mother!” Not because she wouldn’t accept their homosexuality, but that she was overbearing and trying to tell them how to live their lives. And everyone has been in love with someone who isn’t .. ah …
MU: Isn’t available, yes. Is hopeless.
MK: (Laughing) Well, I never have.
MU: (Laughing) Yes, you’ve been the hopeless one.
MK: Right. The other thing about the play is that the more I study it and look at it and see your performances in it, the more I realize it’s not just a play with issues in it, but it is one in which the characters are so richly drawn. The complexity of the characters is what gives the play its depth and its power.
MU: People have such differing reactions to it. Some of the people who have never seen the play before or don’t know anything about it have their specific reactions, and then there are those who saw the original and have a vivid memory of it.
MK: How do the reactions differ?
MU: The people who just have seen it get now why it is a classic. And the people who had the initial experience with it are seeing it newly realized. So those reactions all get mixed together for you. That’s what’s so interesting in doing a classic. But it’s not like doing Hamlet and there have been a thousand Hamlets. This has a much smaller history.
MK: The other thing is that they not only remember Harvey playing that role, but they have conflated that with the Harvey that Harvey has become since. People go, “Oh, when Harvey was playing in Torch Song, Harvey was heavier.” No. When Harvey was in Torch Song, Harvey was very, very thin.
MU: And his voice now is not the way his voice was then. His voice was deep then – but not husky, raspy.
MK: The most exciting thing to me about this production is that people had a memory of this play as being so important. And then AIDS came about and the play became, in a lot of people’s minds, a nugget from the past, something that we remember fondly. But now we look at the play and the truth is that the text holds and is as relevant now as it was then because it is about very specific human beings. Yes, it is a play that deals with issues, but it is also a play that is profoundly personal. That’s one thing. The other thing that really strikes me – I saw the play last night after having not seen it since opening night – is it has gotten and you guys have gotten richer and deeper and more beautiful. The word that kept coming to my mind was “cellular.” You are inhabiting every cell of the play. It’s really, really lovely. What’s interesting – and you kept saying this – is that it feels like a play that was written today about that time. You can feel that. The audience is leaning in and responding as if it is a contemporary play. That’s what great plays do.
MU: They feel like they are written today, yes. And it felt like that when I first read it. When I read it with a mind to do it, it was immediately accessible. This is how we still speak. It does feel like we’re picking up where someone left off.
MK: That central love affair in the play between you and Ed still feels so incredibly relevant and pertinent in that his character is so confused about who he is and what he wants to do with his life.
MU: But, on the other hand, we still have people coming out of the closet after years of being in it and doing it, as Kevin Spacey said with that unfortunate turn of a phrase, by choosing to live his life as a gay man when what he means is choosing to admit I am a gay man.
MK: There was so much wrong with that Kevin Spacey story.
MU: I know. Everything about it was wrong.
MK: It threw back the hands of time so far between his using of the word “choice” and the fact that he was using his gayness to cover up his pedophilia. It was an atrocity.
MU: I know. And the first paragraph of his statement was good.
MK: Yes. He should have left it at that.
MU: Yes. Leave it at that. We got it. We now know. He didn’t need the rest of it. It was so self-serving. It completely backfired.
MU: Now his show House of Cards is over. And now who knows what’s going to happen. And the worst part is now we’re talking about him instead the problem, which are the predators among us. The people who feed on the weak. The people in power who are taking advantage of the people who aren’t in power – which is what happened.
MK: Hmmm … to get back to Ed and the play and something I keep thinking about. You said something interesting to a New York Times writer that Ed is not bisexual. That we know he’s really gay. You and I have never had that conversation. I’m not so sure. I think one of the reasons that the play resonates today is that bisexuality is still something with our community that we have some confusion about. A lot of people within our community, who are bisexual, feel very disenfranchised. They don’t want to even admit that they are bisexual because we will make fun of them. We treat it like it’s a “gateway drug.” What’s that saying?
MU: “Bi now, gay later,” which is why I was concerned about that character at the beginning. But I hear you – because I also believe in the Kinsey Scale. Ed is on there somewhere, whereas Arnold is way over on one side. Arnold probably couldn’t perform with a woman in bed, but Ed absolutely can. We know that he is capable of being attracted to a woman.
MK: I have a problem with what you just said. Because I think that the scale is not about whether or not you’re able to perform. The scale is about desire.
MU: But doesn’t desire play into that?
MK: I guess what I’m objecting to is that for the longest time people would say, “Oh, he’s gay because he couldn’t get it up with a woman.” But we know now it is not about ability; it is about desire. What I find interesting about the Ed character is that audience has a difficult relationship with him because they are all making their own assumptions about him and, if you ask different people in the audience, they will all have different responses as to whether or not Ed is really bisexual.
MK: You don’t think so?
MU: I don’t know, I don’t know. I think if he is bisexual, he is a victim of his time. But then again, if you’re bisexual today, you’re still a victim of your time. Because it’s a very complicated thing that a lot of people don’t accept or believe in. I once had someone say to me that they didn’t believe in bisexuality except for women. That’s a crazy idea.
MK: Right: a crazy idea.
MU: And it goes back to Kevin Spacey saying he chooses to be a gay man even though he was with both men and with women. It’s not choosing. It’s identifying. Ultimately, if the character of Ed was identifying as a bisexual and was in love with Laurel [the woman with whom he is involved in the play] then he could still identify as bisexual and be in love with Laurel. But the fact that he keeps coming back to my character Arnold and trying to make that work – and the relationship with Laurel really never works – is why I say he’s gay, not bi, and he should identify as gay. But I don’t know. I guess I feel that if he is bi – and is legit in identifying as bi – then it’s not good for the bi community. He’s not a great example for them.
MK. That’s right. Because he’s so emotionally confused.
MK: I think you’re right. But this whole idea of how we define ourselves is still a very important question for us, especially now that so many in the younger generation keep talking about a nonbinary model. In that sense, I think the question is still pertinent.
MU: The concept of fluidity is so acceptable among the younger generation. The younger generation are the ones who are going to figure it out.