BY ROB KENDT
Special to Newsday
October 12, 2007
If Studio 54 has any ghosts lounging about its cavernous
interior, they're likely to be sporting knowing, bittersweet grins these days.
This former den of disco-era hedonist excess, now the Broadway home of the Roundabout Theatre Company, houses a lovingly reconstructed 1970s-vintage gay bathhouse, peopled with carefully recreated characters, hairstyles and fashions of the day, for the similarly meticulous remounting of Terrence McNally's anarchic 1975 sex farce "The Ritz." It contains but one fleeting sniff of drug use, and the hanky-panky all happens offstage, but the play's relentless pleasure-seekers wouldn't have been out of place on the louche banquettes of the notorious club.
In director Joe Mantello's spirited if essentially hollow revival, "The Ritz" has a moment that seems to allude explicitly to the image of the club's storied past smiling down on its present: When the bathhouse's nearly talent-free chanteuse, Googie Gomez (Rosie Perez), unleashes her comic horror of a cabaret act, the bathhouse denizens view the show from balconies at the side of the stage, laughing with Googie as much as at her.
Of course, "The Ritz" doesn't run on such poignance but on Swiss-watch comic timing. At its best, Mantello's cast whirls around Scott Pask's multi-storied set like figures on a cuckoo-clock face, with the fey, needy Chris (Brooks Ashmanskas) as a kind of benign ringmaster.
But for all the spring in its step, the play can't help but show its age. Perhaps surprisingly, this is less the case because of its heedless, smirking promiscuity - admittedly, this would have made uncomfortable viewing at the height of the AIDS crisis - than because of its truckload of bewhiskered stereotypes and jokes.
We're not even talking just about the gay ones. The show's premise is that a roly-poly Italian-American improbably named Gaetano Proclo (Kevin Chamberlin), on the run from a Mob contract, has stumbled unknowingly into this Art Deco palace with the tiny rooms and tinier towels, mistaking it for an obscure no-tell hotel. Soon the clueless Gaetano is bumbling among nubile, cruising men and a screeching lech (Patrick Kerr) with a taste for men his size.
He may be ludicrously slow on the uptake, but when Gaetano gets it, he gets it big; Chamberlin's open-mouth shock after a peek into the steam room is a perfectly timed moment of whiplash comedy.
The play could use more like it. Instead, in the absence of farce's most essential ingredient - an exquisite pretzel of a plot that twists its characters around in a perfectly closed circuit - "The Ritz" squeezes its laughs from caricatures well past their sell-by date. They might as well wear placards: fatso, pervert, goombah, fairy.
Or saucy Latin. The strong-willed, weak-headed Googie was created by and for Rita Moreno, and while Perez is a game and endearingly fearless performer, she doesn't quite hit all the registers of irony and desperation in this quintessential hopeless wanna-be. "Are jou a producer?" is practically her first line, and unfortunately that says everything there is to say about her.
That's another reason those ghosts are smiling indulgently, not laughing out loud.
THE RITZ. Written by Terrence McNally. Directed by Joe Mantello. Through Dec. 2 at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., Manhattan. For tickets, call 212-719-1300. Seen Sunday.
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