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Torch Song Trilogy

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Through July 15 at the New Conservatory Theater Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), S.F. Admission is $13-22; call 861-8972.

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Harvey Fierstein's script, though no longer fresh, has a genuine emotional appeal. Director Ed Decker and the New Conservatory Theater Center manage to capture a surprising amount of Fierstein's sensibility, mostly thanks to Paul Tena's performance; he almost effortlessly embodies Fierstein's thinly disguised stand-in Arnold. In Act 1, removing his drag makeup, talking and gesturing energetically, his face reveals Arnold's history of heartbreak even as he cracks wise, though he has a tendency to rush through the verbal torrents Arnold unleashes as his defense against sorrow. This doesn't serve the production well in the second act, when Arnold, his ex Ed (Bill Allen), Ed's current wife Laurel (Melissa Kolaks), and Arnold's new boyfriend (Kyle Kannenberg) are involved in a sexual rondelle during a weekend in the country. Kannenberg can be appealing in these scenes, but he's more often cloying in a role that already suffers from acute darlingness. As Laurel, Kolaks can't quite manage the contradictions of this woman unsure of and yet titillated by her husband's bisexuality. And Allen twists his face into unnatural grimaces, breaks up his sentences with pointless, breathy exhalations, and employs the same falsely earnest tone throughout the play. But in the final, Neil Simon-esque act, Tena's scenes with Martha Stookey as his mother find substance beneath the glib quips and bons mots. Simon Trumble's easygoing charm as Arnold's adopted son also helps out. Still, Fierstein's jokes come from the characters, and the ending, while hopeful, isn't pat. Though Stookey's accent is too studied and her costumes too patrician for Arnold's Brooklyn mama, you believe in her history with Arnold, despite their dissimilar looks. Stookey and Tena give Arnold's struggles to invent a family a true pathos.

 
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