Carrying the Torch

Brandon Uranowitz delivers the relevance and emotion in Studio Theatre's noteworthy new staging of 1982's ''Torch Song Trilogy''

Interview by Doug Rule
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on September 19, 2013, 3:01am | Comments

''Torch Song Trilogy had a very big emotional impact upon me when I saw it the first time around,'' Michael Kahn says. Of course, that was over 30 years ago, when Harvey Fierstein's play broke new ground as a Tony Award-winning hit play built on gay themes, with a lead character who is both gay and a drag queen. Kahn, whose main gig is as the Shakespeare Theatre Company's artistic director, hadn't thought much about the play in the intervening decades until Studio Theatre's David Muse asked him to make a directorial debut at the 14th Street venue. ''I knew that I wanted to do a play by a gay writer, so I re-read a bunch of plays and fell in love all over again with Torch Song.''

The play, which focuses on a gay man's struggles to find love and respect in relationships with men, as well as his hidebound, homophobic mother, is one that affects everyone, especially every LGBT person -- even today.

Torch Song Trilogy: Brandon Uranowitz and Alex Mills

Torch Song Trilogy: Brandon Uranowitz and Alex Mills

(Photo by Todd Franson)

''In rehearsal, quite often we would be reading a scene or something and we'd all end up in tears,'' Kahn says about the seven actors he cast for the production that opens Studio Theatre's new season. ''We all decided we couldn't do the play like that, but there's just something about the [characters] being so human and so vulnerable and so often wrong…. It affected all of us.''

''It's still relevant today,'' says Alex Mills, who plays Alan, lead character Arnold Beckoff's lover. ''It's not just this time capsule that we're bringing back for nostalgia's sake.''

Studio Theatre's production of Torch Song Trilogy is the first in D.C. in decades. Mills thinks part of the reason it's so rarely performed is the show's length: Studio's version is a daunting three-and-a-half hours, with two intermissions. Of course, Shakespeare's plays are often near the same length. ''If the play is compelling, you don't really think about the time,'' Kahn avers. ''And the extraordinary thing about this play is it's emotional, but it's also very funny. And I think it's brilliantly constructed. Just when it gets emotional, there's a joke. And when it gets jokey, there's a scene that'll break your heart.''

An even bigger challenge in staging Torch Song Trilogy is finding the right cast. ''A couple roles were hard to cast, but the big one was Arnold,'' Kahn says, about the lead character, a role Fierstein wrote for himself -- and a character who's always on stage the entire length of the show. ''It didn't have to be anybody that looked like Harvey Fierstein or talked like Harvey Fierstein,'' Kahn adds. ''It just had to be somebody who could be this character.''

''I saw lots of people, and a lot of great actors,'' Kahn continues, ''but [none] able to find their way into being Arnold.'' That is, until -- really, truly -- the last day of auditions, when Brandon Uranowitz walked in. ''I didn't know Brandon, and I had no idea who he was,'' Kahn says. ''It was like some light came on in the room.''

Once Uranowitz proved he wasn't just a one-note actor, but was able to take on a variety of scenes and just really be Arnold, ''I knew then that I could do the play,'' says Kahn.

''It's kind of crazy how 'on' [Uranowitz] was from Day 1,'' Mills agrees. ''There's another 50 percent of jokes that he gets because of just the details he's put in with his physical behavior and mannerisms. He's completely fleshed out the character -- which is why it's so brilliant to watch.''

Critics agree. The Washington Post's Peter Marks even went so far as to suggest Uranowitz should star in every future production of Torch Song Trilogy, calling his portrayal ''an Arnold Beckoff for all (theater) seasons.''

The 27-year-old Uranowitz isn't a total newcomer to the stage. Among other things, in recent years he was in the national tour of Rent and he made his Broadway debut in the 2011 jukebox musical Baby, It's You. But Studio's Torch Song Trilogy is shaping up as a breakout role for Uranowitz. At the least, there's a good chance we'll see the New York-based actor again onstage in D.C. After all, in an interview with Metro Weekly Uranowitz says he'd like to do more Shakespeare. While noting that nothing has been discussed, Kahn, of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, adds: ''I'm very eager to see what else Brandon can do -- and to do it with him.''

METRO WEEKLY: How daunting was it to even consider playing Arnold Beckoff, a role still so closely tied to the man who created it?

BRANDON URANOWITZ: Well, I've never seen the movie, and I wasn't born yet when it was on Broadway. So the only thing that I could sort of gather was the tone, and what I know of Harvey's other work in other things. It was never my intention to do an impression or anything of Harvey. What happens to be on the page is very Harvey Fierstein, and so I assume that what I do hints at things that Harvey has done.

It was obviously daunting and terrifying because those are big shoes to fill. But I sort of had to make it my own in order to really give the emotional depth and the comedy and all of that any sort of truth. Because otherwise if I was just doing an impression, or if I just had Harvey in the back of my mind the whole time, something about that would seem false to me. So if I wanted Arnold to really become a human being, I needed to let that go, and put myself in there, and take the stuff off the page and put it in me and try to find my version of him.

MW: You've definitely made the character your own. Obviously, you don't have the voice, but I did wonder about your very comic, exaggerated mannerisms and moves: How much of that is naturally you and how much is what you were inspired to do because of the character?

URANOWITZ: [Laughs.] I guess I discovered all of that working on this show. I think all of that lives inside me to some extent. But I feel like this part allows me to explore the extreme parts of my character and parts of my personality that I can give on a daily basis. But for this character and for this show, I feel like I'm allowed to let them out of their cage a little bit and play. I guess they're part of me, but it's not really how I behave in my personal life. I think they exist inside of me, but getting to know Arnold more and more through the rehearsal process, it sort of came to the surface a little bit more.

MW: Well, it's pretty amazing to watch. So much of the script and what your character says is funny to begin with, but you've added another level with your body language alone.

URANOWITZ: Oh, well good, that's the goal I think. You know, we could all just read Harvey's script and laugh, because it's a beautiful, hilarious piece. But Arnold's also a person. And this person says these things, these zingers and these one-liners, so it seems to me that this person would probably act a certain way as well.

MW: How much do you identify with the role and the struggles Arnold went through, such as coming out?

URANOWITZ: My coming-out process was fairly smooth, because I just have wonderful, supportive, amazing parents. But for those big emotional scenes, I guess you just have to kind of dive into that well of fear that any gay man has I think when they're thinking of coming out. Any gay man growing up thinking about that process has the fear of a negative outcome, no matter how supportive or amazing your parents might be. Or not even just your parents, the people around you. So I think especially for those big scenes it was just trying to get in touch with what that felt like -- the unknown and the fear of having to deal with the possibility of a negative/adverse reaction to coming out.

MW: Have you done much camp or comedy before? Or even drag?

URANOWITZ: Never done drag before. Never played a gay character before, actually. So this is the first on those fronts for me. It's like playing dress-up, living out all the fantasies you have as a little gay boy wanting to put on lipstick.

I've done comedy -- Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound out at the Old Globe in San Diego. There's a very specific Jewish dryness and a Jewish tone that I grew up with, so doing Neil Simon or even playing this part, the comedy just sort of feels natural, and the intonations and the rhythms are stuff that I grew up with.

MW: How familiar were you with this play?

URANOWITZ: I had read it – I want to say in high school. I remember being completely moved and amazed by it, but also being a little scared of it, because I wasn't out yet. I was dealing with my sexuality, secretly, on my own, in my own head -- so I think I just sort of brushed it off.

But it's like one of those things that makes an impact and then sort of recesses into your subconscious and inspires a lot of the things that you do, but you don't really consciously think about it. I think it just sort of lives there forever. I never really thought about it until my agent called me with the audition appointment for the play. And then I re-read it, in my bed, alone, in my apartment in New York, laughing and sobbing. I had totally forgotten about it.

MW: Well, it's had quite a legacy. It was groundbreaking for its time, but even though it's set in its time period, the turn of the 1980s, it still has relevance today.

URANOWITZ: I know! That's what was so amazing to me about it, when I read it again. What else was so amazing to me was that it hasn't been done [much] at all since it premiered back in the '80s. And it's still so relevant, which is kind of wonderful to me. It's pre-AIDS, before the AIDS epidemic and before that tragedy. So it's nice to have a play where you can really just sort of focus on the relationships and the love -- the love story -- and not cloud it by this massive, massive tragedy, and you don't have to look at it through that lens. You can really just focus on the people, and what they want, and what they deserve and what they're entitled to. It's still so relevant.

Torch Song Trilogy: Brandon Uranowitz

Torch Song Trilogy: Brandon Uranowitz

(Photo by Todd Franson)

MW: Back then marriage equality wasn't even –

URANOWITZ: And not just marriage equality. Gay relationships, gay love, period. There's this great interview that Harvey did with Barbara Walters, when [the show] premiered on Broadway. She's talking about gay love, and homosexual love, versus heterosexual love, and talking about it like it's this completely foreign, novel, alien idea.

MW: And I'm guessing back then the audience might have even sympathized a little more with the mother than they do today.

URANOWITZ: Yeah, probably. Exactly. Today she seems a little more malicious and villainous, but even back then I think they would have probably had a similar mindset [as she] about the whole thing. People's minds have changed, but the fight is still strong and I think that's why this play speaks to people still.

MW: It's also interesting to think about the audience. The night I saw it, the crowd was probably half straight. And in particular there's the gay-bar backroom scene, which is quite hysterical -- and the women behind me were laughing hard -- but it's also a bit startling to see the goings-on there so openly simulated onstage. In the midst of laughing I was also partly recoiling, thinking: These straight women aren't supposed to know about this, let alone find it funny.

URANOWITZ: I know! I know, it's jarring. But it was a reality. Harvey presents it in a comedic sort of tone, and through a comedic lens I think to make it a little more palatable for people. But, you know, it's where a lot of men went to satisfy their urges and their desires that they were not allowed to have. And they had to do that in a dark backroom where it was a kept secret, and no one could see your face. It was completely anonymous. People think that that's dirty, and irresponsible. And at some point it did become irresponsible because of the disease, but these men are struggling in the outside world to live. Arnold says it in the play that he wants to live a normal life, out in the daylight where everybody can see him. But he goes into the backroom because that's where people would go.

MW: And there is a distinction made between love and sex, and the hunt for a relationship -- and whether that has to be built on monogamy. The play notably touches on that with the ''straight'' couple, Ed and Laurel.

URANOWITZ: Like Arnold says in the play, monogamy is a much easier system to keep track of. You can be there, and you can live in it, and you can be comfortable and safe and stable in it, but then once you start opening those doors, which Ed and Laurel seem so dead-set on opening, it allows for a lot of the unknown. And that can play into the relationship in negative, detrimental ways, whether you want to admit it or not.

MW: Speaking of relationships: The Wikipedia entry on you says you're married to actor Molly Hager.

URANOWITZ: Oh, my God, I know. [Laughs.] Okay, here's the story behind that. This is the first time it's actually sort of affected my professional life.

When Facebook first came out, it was for a handful of colleges. And one of my best friends at NYU was Molly Hager, and she still is one of my closest, closest friends. And Facebook was just this weird kind of fun website that people would play with when we were at college. It didn't have all the features that it has now. It was pretty basic. And then they randomly started rolling out these different features, and one of them was the relationship status, and there was a married option. We thought that that was hilarious, because it was just for young college kids. Like, who the hell is married and in a relationship on Facebook? Which seems so silly now because, I mean, most people have a Facebook now.

So we decided to get married on Facebook. This was like in 2005. Then Facebook blew up, and we vowed never to change it. I have no idea who created my Wikipedia page. Molly has no idea who created hers. But somehow it made it on there because of this thing on Facebook. And we just think it's hilarious, but I guess maybe it's probably more responsible to change it at this point.

But, no, I was never married to Molly Hager. Nope. Never.

MW: Are you in a relationship these days?

URANOWITZ: I am. To an actor, Zach, that I met doing my first Broadway show, Baby, It's You. He was my understudy. That was in 2011. So it's been almost two-and-a-half years. He's in Portland doing Fiddler on the Roof, but, hopefully, if we extend he'll be able to come and see this show.

MW: It must present special challenges, being in a relationship with a fellow actor.

URANOWITZ: Oh, my God. Especially 'cause it's not just dating a fellow actor – it's dating an actor and we go out for the same parts. Like he auditioned for this, you know what I mean? It's sort of something that comes up all the time. It's a really true test of character and keeps your selfishness and selflessness in check. Becoming an actor -- like any job should be, really -- it's kind of a dream you have growing up as a kid, and you have all these fantasies and aspirations of all this stuff growing up. You're not growing up, necessarily, with your significant other [in mind]. So once this person comes into your life, it becomes about prioritizing your dreams and this person that you love unconditionally, and trying to put all of those things that you'd fantasize about in your childhood aside for the sake of a healthy, positive relationship. It's a struggle. It's a struggle, but we're somehow making it work.

MW: When you two compete for a part and you win, such as this one, do you owe him something? I mean, do you find a way to make it up to him?

URANOWITZ: [Laughs.] No, no, because what we've realized over the past couple years is that it can't be a competition. I'll get a part, he'll get a part, I'll get a part, he'll get a part. It's always just going to be alternating. That's how it's been historically for us. The comeuppance, I guess, if you want to call it that, is getting another part somewhere down the road.

MW: Have you actually worked together since that first time in Baby, It's You? Would you like to?

URANOWITZ: No, we have not. Yeah! I think that would be fun. It would be very interesting. I'd be curious to see what exactly we would do together.

MW: Growing up, did you have your sights set on becoming a stage actor?

URANOWITZ: Yeah, well, I grew up in New Jersey, right outside of New York City. I was in extracurricular acting/theater classes since I was 6.

Then I started – because we were so close to New York – I started acting professionally. I did a lot of stuff as a kid between the ages of 9 and 13. And I was in the world premiere of Ragtime in Toronto. My mom and my sister moved with me to Toronto for eight months. Growing up, stage acting was what I always wanted to do. It was always sort of musical-theater focused. Then I sort of lost interest in that in high school. In college I fell in love with Shakespeare, and would love to do more of that. There's also some really, really wonderful, amazing writing happening in the TV world right now. I think it'd be fun to do that as well. I'd love to be able to break into that. There's some really incredible writing going on there, so I think that would be fun. But I don't know what the future holds. I'm just going to ride the wave and see where it takes me.

MW: Obviously, you had a supportive family not just in terms of being gay, but in terms of your acting and theater aspirations. Is your sister also an actor?

URANOWITZ: She's also an actor. She's four years younger. She just graduated. She also went to NYU. Yeah, my parents were always very supportive. That was an incredible thing that they did. My parents are still married and still together. My dad stayed in New Jersey to work and make money while my mom moved up to Canada with me and my sister so that I could do the show. They lived apart from each other for a long time. They're just amazing.

MW: Have they seen you in Torch Song Trilogy?

URANOWITZ: They came to opening night. It was very nerve-wracking for all of us. It was also very emotional. It was a great night.

MW: One thing we didn't really touch on is the whole drag aspect of the character and the play. Early on, Arnold says drag queens are a dying breed, essentially asserting that once gays have more equality, drag queens will wither away. And yet, drag queens are probably more popular now than ever.

URANOWITZ: Than ever, I know, I know! It's fascinating. I think it's kind of wonderful, though, that the gay community sort of held on to this campy, over-the-top self-expression, and didn't let it die. I think, at the time, to Harvey -- this is probably not a very PC thing to say -- but there was something a little minstrelsy about drag: painted face and this caricature of a gay person to make people laugh. I think he probably thought that once [gays] were accepted that drag would probably not be. It's like Arnold says, like the blacks did to Amos, Andy and Aunt Jemima. It's these characters that came out of a struggle, but were sort of performed and done to entertain the naysayers. It's fascinating to me that drag has become more of an art form and a performance art, and I think that's kind of wonderful. I don't think it's necessarily about fighting to be accepted, although that is obviously a very real and very present struggle for any gay person, and any transgendered person and any drag queen. But at this point it's more about the art of it and the craft of it.

You know, with RuPaul's Drag Race and everything, some of these queens are kind of brilliant. They're really good at what they do.

MW: Do you think you'll do drag again?

URANOWITZ: I don't know. It's not something I've ever really thought about. It's really fun. But, you know, it's also kind of scary. Doing drag seems to me like doing standup comedy. It's like one of the scariest things to me. Like putting yourself out there and hoping that people respond and laugh and enjoy it. But, also, the other thing is, most drag queens have a gimmick. They have a thing. I have no idea what mine would be. But it would be something fun to explore.

I'm also going to have all of this makeup once the show is over, so I might as well use it, right?

Torch Song Trilogy runs to Oct. 13 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org.


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