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'Torch Song Trilogy' is long, but satisfying

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You're asking a lot of your audience when you present a four-and-a-half-hour show in a tiny, stuffy theater, but thankfully Workhouse Theatre Co. delivers the goods in its latest production.

Harvey Fierstein packed a young lifetime of observations, insecurities, and lessons into Torch Song Trilogy, an overstuffed epic about the life of a gay man in New York City during the heady era between the start of the movement and the wreckage wrought by AIDS. Workhouse Theatre Co.'s current production leaves it all out on the stage in a lengthy (don't make any other plans for the evening) but almost always engrossing production of the work.

The play centers on Arnold, a young drag queen looking for what most people are looking for: love, companionship, and someone to help them not feel so lonely. He thinks he finds it in the guise of Ed, an older school teacher. Ed has insecurities of his own, starting with his bisexuality. These insecurities cause the end of their partnership, but not the friendship, as the two lives continue to intertwine over the next six years.

The middle episode features a long weekend where Ed and his girlfriend, Lauren, entertain Arnold and his new flame, Alan, at their country cottage. The final piece--literally a fully fledged play on its own--takes place five years later, and centers on Arnold's uneasy relationship with his mother, his plans to adopt a troubled gay teen, and (perhaps) the culmination of the relationship that sparked the entire story.

It's a testament to Fierstein's talents that he's able to keep the audience engrossed in a domestic drama for such a long time. At the end of the play, even after nearly four-and-a-half hours, I wanted to know what happened next to these men.

Of course, part of that credit goes to the actors, led by Max Wojtonowicz as Arnold. The character uses his bitchiness to hide a trunkful of insecurities and Wojtonowicz plays the different sides very well, slipping between funny and dramatic moments with ease. Joseph Botten's Ed is more of an enigma, as the reserved character is slower to reveal what lies beneath, still the actor presents a full, breathing character. This dynamic is important, because the on-again, off-again, on-again relationship lies at the center of the play and the actors need to be flexible enough to carry it all off.

Both Rory Taylor Gilbert and Steven Lee Johnson employ "Naw Yawk" accents that threaten to overwhelm their entire performances, but both ride through any hitches to give us warm, engaging characters.

Fierstein does better with the men than the women here, who seem to be as much ciphers for the author to explore different issues then fully rounded characters. This lack of depth isn't because of the actors, as both Shannon Jankowski as Laurel and Miriam Monasch as Mrs. Beckoff bring out nuances in the roles, helping to add extra color to the production.

The work by the actors, combined with Richard Jackson's direction and Fierstein's own work, help the evening, if not fly by, at least remain engaging despite any distractions from the atmosphere of the theater or the busy street outside, as the lives of these people unfold before us.

Torch Song Trilogy runs through July 3.