Archive Review: The Ritz

From October 2007:

Terence McNally’s recent “gay history” play Some Men featured a couple of scenes set in the gay bathhouses of the 1970s. It’s territory that McNally had trod before: The Ritz, a sexy, silly farce set in the titular bathhouse, was his first bona fide Broadway hit in 1975. A revival would have seemed unlikely, given that McNally has in the interveningthirty-some years become a “serious playwright,” and The Ritz – for all its considerable charms – is decidedly slight and un-serious.

Goddess bless the Roundabout Theatre Company, then, ever the friend of forgotten but smart and worthy comedies, for bringing us this juicy new production, clearly a labor of love for director Joe Mantello and his leads Kevin Chamberlain and Rosie Perez. Chamberlain plays garbage man Gaetano Proclo, hiding from his violent mobster brother-in-law in the most bewildering place – a gay bathhouse. Perez plays Googie Gomez, the Ritz’s resident “singing” diva. Gomez makes up for in sheer determination what she decidedly lacks in talent.

One of the show’s high points is Gomez’s nightclub act, a demented showtune medley that Perez delivers with aplomb – it takes a whole lot of talent to make a bit this willfully bad feel so good. Chamberlain imbues Proclo with a bumbling sweetness that renders this breeder’s squeamish reaction to so much concentrated queerness a bit more palatable.

The show’s heart, not so surprisingly, is in the gay characters, most notably Chris, the bathhouse’s very own slutty queen(y) bee. Brook Ashmanskas, who plays Chris, was nominated for a Tony last season for playing random comic bits in Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me; while I enjoyed his performance there, I never quite understood what made it award-worthy. His warmly nutty portrayal of Chris surely deserves the nod even more.

The way-gay supporting cast is even more praiseworthy: the always hilarious Seth Rudetsky delivers what is easily the funniest single moment in the show with his “handy” rendition of “Magic to Do” from Pippin as part of the Ritz’s amateur talent show.  Porn star Ryan Idol makes an amusing cameo as a cigar-smoking daddy organizing a “Crisco party.” David Turner redeems his leading role in the musical flop In My Life with a charming turn as the sweetly cynical go-go boy Duff (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe makes less of an impression as Duff’s look-alike lover Tiger).

Scott Pask’s set successfully evokes the steamy atmosphere of bathhouses gone by. The Ritz is 70s gay sex farce at its very best (were there that many?) and that comes across in this affectionate revival.

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