In olden days a glimpse of stocking was something shocking, and in 1975, Terrence McNally's "The Ritz," with its wisecracking, half-naked gay men, still registered high on the shock meter.
But it was so innocently funny - and with the gays, perhaps sufficiently, if defensively, stereotyped for straight Broadway to accept with a knowing chuckle - that it was a hit.
Today, in a post-AIDS world, it's a different proposition. And it is different - it's even funnier.
It also has a great cast led by Kevin Chamberlin as a Cleveland businessman seeking shelter from a mob hit in a gay bathhouse, where Rosie Perez is the fantabulous Googie Gomez, star of the in-house nightclub (shades of Bette Midler, minus the talent).
McNally's written the best Feydeau farce since Feydeau, where eccentrics in seedy hotels chase one another wildly in search of love, or at least sex, in a merry-go-round of misunderstanding.
Where McNally trumps Feydeau is in having Googie mistake the businessman for a Broadway producer, with hilarious consequences.
McNally's animated cartoons - Claude, the chubby chaser who can get it on only with fatties; Michael, the detective with biceps and a soprano (no, not those Sopranos) voice - are grotesque, absurd, but never unkind.
McNally has wisely left the play a period piece. Some references may now need Shakespearean-like textual notes: How many recall the days when cabbies wouldn't change anything larger than a $5 bill, or remember After Dark magazine, or the names Tex Antoine or Zinka Milanov?
Scott Pask has done a lovely job with the setting, an arrangement of doors, cubicles and stairs straight out of a modern-day Dante's Inferno, while William Ivey Long's costumes - down to Long's short towels - meet every requirement.
Director Joe Mantello, always in tune with McNally, has gotten a perfect ensemble performance. The adorable Chamberlin is pitch-perfect as Proclo, the harassed businessman beset by slowly dawning misunderstandings and fear of sudden death.
At times, he seems to channel Jack Weston's performance in the original (there was later a movie), but Chamberlin has a silly sweetness all his own.
Brooks Ashmanskas is all high spirits and girlish self-assurance as Chris, self-appointed queen of the night; Patrick Kerr is splendid in his single-minded quest for masculine weight; Terrence Riordan is handsomely naive as the dim, high-voiced detective; Lenny Venito is finely grotesque as the businessman's brother-in-law; and Ashlie Atkinson is properly conflicted as Proclo's wife.
But if you need just one reason to visit "The Ritz," I can give it to you in two words: Rosie Perez.
Her marvelously mangled medley of Broadway hits is in itself worth the price of admission: She never puts a wrong note right in a virtuoso hit parade of the absurd.
Googie deserves Broadway, but does Broadway deserve Googie?
Among life’s shameful pleasures — they are several steps down from guilty pleasures — is the joy of watching self-infatuated singers performing really badly. If you think of yourself as a decent person, you must feel a bit, well, tainted by the glee you have derived from Britney Spears’s sleepwalking act on the MTV Music Awards or the opening rounds of “American Idol.”
Take heart, devotees of this lowly subset of schadenfreude. The Roundabout Theater Company has made it possible for you to indulge your unsavory appetite without self-recrimination.
Seeing Rosie Perez’s act as a talent-free chanteuse in the sporadically funny revival of “The Ritz,” which opened last night at Studio 54, provides the guiltless bliss of eating a slab of vegetarian foie gras that tastes like the real thing. When Ms. Perez sings — off-key, off-cue and off-balance, but with a menacing determination that threatens nasty reprisals if you don’t applaud — you know you’re in the hands of a woman who appreciates just how good bad can be.
When “The Ritz” first opened in 1975, establishing Terrence McNally as a high-profile playwright, its selling point was that it was bad in another way. That’s bad as in “naughty, naughty.” Set in a gay bathhouse, “The Ritz” arrived on Broadway at a moment when gay culture seemed to embody the most advanced evolution of the sexual revolution. Heterosexual theatergoers who never made it to Plato’s Retreat or wife-swapping parties could dip a vicarious toe into baths where you went to get dirty.
Well, yesterday’s dirt, as is often the case, has become today’s dust. This latest revival of “The Ritz” (the first, since an ill-fated stunt production at the discothèque Xenon in 1983) is cute, cuddly and often oddly inert. (There was also an unloved film version in 1976.) Stripped of the amyl-nitrite-scented clouds of novelty that clung to it 32 years ago, the show is exposed as a friendly, conventional sitcom for the stage. And though it features ace performances by Ms. Perez and by Kevin Chamberlin as a visitor from the planet of the heteros, Joe Mantello’s direction rarely revs up to the dizzy velocity that farce demands.
Mr. Chamberlin is Gaetano (Guy) Proclo, a sanitation company president who is the play’s protagonist and, yes, its straight man. On the run from his homicidal brother-in-law, the corpulent Guy seeks refuge in the seedy, steamy Ritz. There he attracts the unwelcome attentions of a chubby chaser (Patrick Kerr), who wants to jump Guy’s well-padded bones, and of Googie Gomez (Ms. Perez), the club’s singer in residence, who mistakes Guy for a theater producer.
Guy is also being stalked by Michael Brick (Terrence Riordan), a virile-looking private detective with the voice of Mickey Mouse, and by the end of the first act Guy’s spitting-mad brother-in-law (Lenny Venito). Mistaken identities abound, as do silly disguises, unexpected alliances and Mack Sennett-style chases, all spiced with the ethnic humor known as Gay.
The script has been retooled slightly. The advent of AIDS in the early 1980s dampened for many years the prospect of reviving a frothy piece set in a place devoted to the exchange of bodily fluids. Mr. Mantello’s version does its best to banish mortal specters by presenting the baths as a sort of abstract farce machine, populated by benign cartoon characters.
Jokes about sexually transmitted diseases have been eliminated. The musical background has been pushed forward chronologically to allow the inclusion of Donna Summer-era disco hits. And the parade of bath-towel-wearing gay stereotypes who slink, swagger and sashay through Scott Pask’s multitiered red set seem less like sexual predators than quaint, and sometimes perfectly sculptured objets d’art. (You get the feeling that what they really do in the private rooms is compare exercise regimens.)
Without erotic frissons, the heart of “The Ritz” reads mushy instead of racy. Guy is befriended by Chris (the adept Brooks Ashmanskas in a part improbably created on Broadway by F. Murray Abraham), a kindly sexual compulsive who maps out the lay of the bathhouse for Guy and teaches him that homosexuals are people too. Chris is a forerunner of the naughty-but-nice gay jester, who has become a staple on prime-time comedy. Mr. Ashmanskas plays him with self-delighted charm. But for anyone who watched “Will & Grace,” Chris will seem like a rerun.
The appealing Mr. Chamberlin (“Dirty Blonde,” “Seussical”) exudes a sweet, passive quality that is softer than the embattled masculinity of Jack Weston, who originated the part, and that fits in with Mr. Mantello’s conception of a family-style “Ritz.” This Guy is ultimately an open-minded mensch, which fortunately doesn’t prevent Mr. Chamberlin from registering curiosity, shock and dismay with disarming comic finesse.
But for “The Ritz” to come across as more than a sanitized tour of Ye Olde Gay Land, it needs a furious momentum it never achieves here. The show has the basic ingredients for farcical frenzy, including a large cast and a whole lot of doors. Yet the chase sequences feel more dutiful than hysterical. We’re given the wiring of farce but, for the most part, none of the wild electricity.
The exception is Ms. Perez, who makes the ambitious, angry Googie an electrical force indeed. Googie was created by Rita Moreno, who won a Tony for the part, and Ms. Moreno is really all that I remember from seeing “The Ritz” in college. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime comic turns that you don’t expect to see replicated or matched.
Ms. Perez, however, comes close, endowing Googie with a rabid self-belief and willpower that lasso your attention and hold it tight. More than the boys in the club, this gal (and don’t mistake her for a transvestite, or you’ll be sorry) burns with the conviction of her desire. That’s the desire to be famous. And it turns Googie’s misbegotten medley of show tunes, which concludes the first act, into a few of the funniest minutes on Broadway.
The musicals Googie borrows from include “Annie,” “Gypsy,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The King and I,” all executed falteringly and passionately to a fluctuating disco beat. She is the raw, ugly side of the lusty ambition and love of showbiz that animate all performers determined to make it on Broadway. If Googie had talent she would be a star. As it is, her confident incompetence is the best reason to see “The Ritz.”
The star of Roundabout's Broadway revival of "The Ritz" is Scott Pask's principal set, a gleaming, three-tiered pleasure dome depicting the interior of the eponymous gay bathhouse, studded with line upon line of bordello-red doors. But while the traffic moves frenetically around its maze of stairs, corridors and private rooms, and those doors slam ceaselessly open and shut, Terrence McNally's 1975 comedy mostly groans along as a pallid echo of a time both wilder and more innocent, when gay sex was still a risque subject.
As in his starry but unsatisfying revival of "The Odd Couple" two seasons back, Joe Mantello's slick direction is not always employed to best effect in comedy. In his overproduced staging of "The Ritz," he plays it broad, fast and loud but reveals no feel for farce, which requires a deft balance of giddiness and precision that also eludes most of his cast.
What's more distressing, however, is that Mantello lacks any special insight into the era so affectionately captured by McNally. As dated and occasionally feeble as the material is, it could have been a nostalgic time-warp back to the hedonistic disco days of pre-AIDS New York, when the gay community still hovered on the social margins and retained a last shred of underground inclusiveness that's since given way to demarcation according to age, body-type and sexual subdivision.
The perfectly sculpted abs of the man-candy draped all over Pask's set indicate a disregard for period authenticity. But it's the failure to reflect beyond the superficial on the drives of gay men -- not just for sex but for self-affirmation -- in a unique window of time after Stonewall and before the ugly stigmatization of the 1980s that represents the revival's missed opportunity. Only in the curtain call, when the cast boogies to Donna Summer's "Last Dance," is there some sense of the era's rebellious energy.
Which is not to say there's nothing here to enjoy. McNally's dialogue is peppered with witty zingers, and he crafted two irresistible comic creations in swishy flamer Chris and hot-tempered Latina singer Googie Gomez, whose showbiz ambition is undiminished by her absence of talent.
Brooks Ashmanskas steals every scene as Chris, amplifying McNally's skill at humanizing the most extreme of gay stereotypes. A bathhouse habitue with an unapologetic sex addiction ("Sex is just my way of saying hello"), Chris flits about, assuming coy poses in a purple kimono artfully arranged around his curvy belly.
Played quietly off to one side, his elaborate ritual of preparations for the evening -- redecorating his private room, adjusting the lighting, full-body moisturizing -- are more fun than the scene happening downstage.
As Googie, Rosie Perez steps with mixed success into the gaudy platform shoes worn by Rita Moreno in the original Broadway run and subsequent film. Moreno's incensed cries, when mistaken for a transvestite, of "Tacky drag?" made her Googie a formidable spitfire.
Perez (looking disconcertingly like Eartha Kitt when she dons a turban) doesn't seem entirely comfortable in the screechy role. Struggling with an unevenly exaggerated Hispanic accent, she fares better with the physical comedy than the verbiage, notably in her bathhouse cabaret act, a deliciously awful medley of butchered show tunes.
Given that Moreno earned as many laughs slaughtering just "Everything's Coming Up Roses," it's probably overkill, but the demented chutzpah of Perez's Googie stringing together "Tomorrow," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "Shall We Dance," "Sabbath Prayer," the whipping of Christ from "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Rose's Turn," "People," "Some People" and "Maybe This Time" makes you wish the production had made other such insanely audacious choices.
The thin plot spins around a hit ordered by a dying Italo-American patriarch on his sweet-natured schlub of a son-in-law, Gaetano (Kevin Chamberlin). Expecting a generic Jack LaLanne-type establishment, Gaetano stumbles into Manhattan gay cruise palace, the Ritz, thinking it's the last place his brother-in-law Carmine (Lenny Venito) will look for him. A tangle of mistaken identities ensues when Gaetano signs in using Carmine's name and then passes himself off as a big-time producer, fueling Googie's feverish dreams of stardom.
The dialogue-driven fish-out-of-water comedy generally works better than the accelerated mayhem. However, Mantello and the likable but not quite endearing enough Chamberlin fail to locate both the pathos and the uplift of a man belittled and threatened by his overbearing family, who, after rubbing shoulders with the Ritz's rebels and misfits, overcomes his nervous homophobia and finds the courage to stand up for himself. That scene between Gaetano and his confused wife (Ashlie Atkinson) plays as rote resolution rather than emotional catharsis.
Everyone works hard, notably Patrick Kerr as Claude, a chubby-chaser driven wild by Gaetano's ample flesh. But there's something strained and underwhelming about the proceedings.
In addition to Pask's impressive set, craft contributions are lavish, from William Ivey Long's character-enhancing period outfits (there are more towels and robes here than at Bed Bath & Beyond) to Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer's dynamic lighting and some energizing snatches of disco hits. But the plush production only serves to expose the play's weaknesses. Without any attempt to contextualize, its outrageousness now feels a little mummified.