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Moises Kaufman (#110 of 4)

Interview: Michael Urie on Bringing Torch Song to the Second Stage Theater

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Interview: Michael Urie on Bringing Torch Song to the Second Stage Theater

Joan Marcus

Interview: Michael Urie on Bringing Torch Song to the Second Stage Theater

When we last chatted with Michael Urie, the genial and charismatic actor was enjoying the success of Buyer & Cellar at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Playing a fictional version of Barbara Streisand in that solo comedy, he now says, prepared him for his latest venture Off Broadway: the lead in Harvey Fierstein’s celebrated Torch Song Trilogy. Urie plays Arnold Beckoff, a drag queen in search of love and family life in New York City. Now re-titled Torch Song, the hit from the early 1980s is getting its first major revival at the Second Stage Theater (now through December 3). The production, directed by Moisés Kaufman, also stars Mercedes Ruehl as Arnold’s loving yet crushingly disapproving mother. We talked recently to Urie about the return of the seminal gay play and what it was like taking on the role originally made famous by the playwright Fierstein himself nearly four decades ago.

Labors of Love: Director Moisés Kaufman Talks Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

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Labors of Love: Director Moisés Kaufman Talks Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Labors of Love: Director Moisés Kaufman Talks Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

The great Tennessee Williams, unsurpassed poet of the theater and incisive chronicler of the human soul, was born 100 years ago this March. No surprise then that we are likely to see a slew of his work produced on our stages in his centenary year. In New York, we’ve already had productions of his lesser known Vieux Carré and The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Now we have a particularly unusual offering in the New Group and Tectonic Theater Project’s production of One Arm, based on an unproduced Williams screenplay. The production, currently playing at Theater Row, is adapted and directed by Moisés Kaufman, who’s best known for the plays Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, The Laramie Project, and the Tony-nominated 33 Variations. Kaufman also recently directed Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, currently playing on Broadway. The Venezuelan born director/playwright talked to The House recently about his labor of love, bringing this little known Williams work to the stage.

How did you get interested in One Arm?

I found it in a collection of screenplays about 10 years ago and I remember being immediately struck by its frankness. When Williams is depicting gay life in the ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s, for obvious reasons, his gay characters always end up very badly: Blanche DuBois’s boyfriend commits suicide off-stage [A Streetcar Named Desire], Paul Newman ends up married to Elizabeth Taylor [the movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof], and in Suddenly Last Summer, Sebastian ends up being eaten by cannibals. This screenplay is really about the kind of homosexual underground in which Tennessee Williams lived. The story is based, supposedly, on a hustler, who had one arm, who he knew in New Orleans, who was incredibly beautiful and who resembled the statue of Apollo. Obviously it was autobiographical because he met this hustler, but it was also personal because toward the end of his life most of his sexual encounters were with hustlers. It was the frankest portrayal of that world that I had seen from Williams. I was very moved and very excited by that.

Didn’t he write it originally as a short story?

Lost and Found in Translation: Playwright Rajiv Joseph on Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

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Lost and Found in Translation: Playwright Rajiv Joseph on Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Lost and Found in Translation: Playwright Rajiv Joseph on Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which opened March 31 on Broadway, heralds the arrival of compelling new voice in the American theater. And it’s not just because the production has snagged A-list comedian Robin Williams to play the title role, or because the play was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize. This surrealistic dark comedy, set in the early months of the U.S. occupation of Iraq’s capital city, is a bold and vividly theatrical take on issues and concerns that face Americans in the 21st century. The buzz about the 36-year-old Ohio-born writer has been building for some years now. His first play, Huck and Holden, debuted Off Broadway in 2005. Numerous awards and grants, as well as productions of his plays in theaters across the country, followed. Bengal Tiger, his most powerful play to date, has been given a gripping and imaginative production, directed by Moisés Kaufman, twice in Los Angeles and now in New York at the Richard Rodgers Theater. I spoke with Joseph last month, when the play was still in previews.

War Hoarse: Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Clifford Chase’s Winkie

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War Hoarse: <em>Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo</em> and <em>Clifford Chase’s Winkie</em>
War Hoarse: <em>Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo</em> and <em>Clifford Chase’s Winkie</em>

War is hell, but it has never left any modern writer dry for material, and with the endless, twisted, labyrinthine wars that continue to prop up all over the world, it provides enough mileage for keyboard-tappers everywhere. Both Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Clifford Chase’s Winkie offer skewered takes on global matters and are firmly a product of our grey, cynical times; it’s almost as if Jon Stewart were lurking somewhere in the background, ready to pounce if the right amount of canted slyness didn’t present itself. Oh, there’s lotsa yelling for effect too. Lots of it.