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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE RITZ
at Studio 54

STEAM HEAT
By Mervyn Rothstein

  Rosie Perez and Kevin Chamberlin/ph: Joan Marcus

Terrence McNally's The Ritz is an artifact of the mid-1970s, a time long ago in a galaxy far, far away, a world without AIDS where disco music reigns supreme, where men in towels (or less) congregate at steam baths to engage in wild, promiscuous and depersonalized sex.

But it's still funny.

Even when it opened at the Longacre on Broadway in January 1975, Clive Barnes of The New York Times wrote that it was basically just a situation comedy, and that the humors of the straight-gay confrontation have been played to death. But he strongly added, in his favorable review, that he had laughed a lot.

That's because it's funny.

I can happily report that the Roundabout Theater Company's 2007 revival of The Ritz at Studio 54, directed with friendly precision by Joe Mantello , has reasonably survived the passing of the decades. It is 32 years older, and the world, and the way we look at this play, is very different. But I laughed.

That's because it's funny.

McNally's tale of Gaetano Procio, an Italian-American garbage executive from Cleveland who unintentionally flees to a gay bathhouse to try to escape a gangland contract put on him by his mobster brother-in-law, has somehow magically retained its wildly farcical sense of humor. Yes, AIDS has changed everything. The play has been sanitized to eliminate references to catching diseases, references that would have a very different meaning today.

Yes, the characters are basically stereotypes (not just gay, but Italian and Latino). But sit-coms are often filled with stereotypes, and these are ones of love and acceptance, not hate and discrimination. Yes, whatever raciness and voyeurism the play might have in 1975 for straight audiences is nonexistent today in our society of 24-hour-a-day Internet porn. And yes, McNally still briefly inserts his standard gay sermon: Straight people- they don't like gays. They never have. Never will. (It's a sentiment, though, that, as daily newspaper headlines reveal, retains most of the validity it held back then.)

There's all that. But The Ritz is still funny.

Much credit goes to Mantello's direction, and especially his excellent cast. Doors open and close exactly when they must open and close. Actors continually run up and down the steps,with precise comic timing. Kevin Chamberlin, as Gaetano, the Italian-American at risk (Jack Weston in the original) registers just the right amount of surprise, discomfort and disbelief, combined with humor, warmth and humanity. Brooks Ashmanskas as Chris (F. Murray Abraham in 1975), the quintessential queen, lusting - without success - for carnal knowledge of every gay man both in and out of sight, in one blissful night, gets laugh after laugh from his appreciative audience.

That's because he, and the others, are funny.

Lenny Venito as Carmine Vespucci, the Mafioso-type on the hunt (Jerry Stiller back then) conveys an ideal mix of venality and bumbling. And Patrick Kerr as Claude Perkins (originally Paul B. Price), the very model of a modern chubby chaser, is ... well ...

funny.

But the queen of them all - so to speak - is Rosie Perez (Rita Moreno in 1975), as Googie Gomez, the fiery, rapid-fire Latino Bette Midler wannabe. (Remember that Midler jump-started her career beginning in 1970 at the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse in the Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side.) Googie thinks Gaetano is a producer come to make her a star, and she offers him herself as well as her bathhouse act, full of faux pas galore and her classic (and unique) medley of show tunes.

There's her upbeat take on Rose's Turn from Gypsy. Her beat-filled Sabbath Prayer

 


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