THE RITZ * Written by Terrence McNally * Directed by Joe Mantello * Starring Kevin Chamberlin, Rosie Perez, and Brooks Ashmanskas * Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, New York City, through December 2.

You would think that an elder statesman of the theater like Terrence McNally would be resting on his laurels and collecting his royalties from Majorca or Maui. But unlike his ex-lover Edward Albee or his contemporary Sam Shepard, who eke out something new every five years or so, the 68-year-old McNally churns out plays like a caffeinated hotshot fresh out of Yale. The current revival of The Ritz at Studio 54 is his third show on or near Broadway this year alone. 

First up was Some Men at the Second Stage, an ensemble piece in the tradition of Love! Valour! Compassion! and Corpus Christi. Spanning eight decades, it investigated the ways gay men have evolved (or not) in their habits of partnering (or not). All the scenes you expect from a gay social history are there. Same-sex wedding? Check. Scene at the baths? Check. AIDS ward? Check. Gay therapy group? Check. Internet chat room, gay daddies, elders being interviewed by earnest/ignorant young students, gay bar the night of the Stonewall rebellion – they’re all predictably there. The play might have felt like a string of clichés if it weren’t so well staged by Trip Cullman and fantastically acted. In particular, the ever-great David Greenspan wrung tears and laughter from some of the most overexposed gay stereotypes, including a drag queen in a Greenwich Village sweater bar who sings “Over the Rainbow” in a weak but endearing voice with a thick Long Island accent. Besides being haunted by actor Romain Frugé’s astonishingly beautiful bare butt, I came away with respect for McNally’s stamina for chronicling gay life. Even if it’s old news to us, mainstream straight audiences eat it up. And who knows, a play like Some Men may turn out decades from now to be the definitive document of the way we live now.

Next was Deuce, a calculated commercial comedy for the old-lady Broadway audience, about two old ladies, retired tennis champions played by Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes. The play was schematic as an eighth-grade term paper about the history of women’s tennis. But in some ways this pair evoked the main characters in my favorite McNally play, A Perfect Ganesh, in which two women who meet on an airplane have a profound conversation about life, love, and death. The audience for Deuce mostly went to worship Lansbury, and they went crazy hearing the star of Murder, She Wrote say “cunt,” tell Viagra jokes, and speculate about which tennis stars are lesbians.
Unfortunately, the Roundabout Theater Company did McNally no favors in reviving The Ritz, first seen on Broadway in 1975. Set in a New York bathhouse – post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS -- where a garbageman from Cleveland (Kevin Chamberlin) hides out from the Mafia, the play is justifiably famous for its unapologetic display of gay male sexuality. (One character totes a tub of Crisco, and not for making cupcakes.) But the script is a lame attempt at French farce. To be funny, farce has to start plausibly and then seduce the audience into buying a string of improbabilities that build to delirious nonsense. The Ritz is far-fetched from the get-go so there’s no momentum, just a string of desperately unfunny sitcom gags about a fat straight guy’s fear of the half-naked gay men running around. 
McNally originally crafted the play around the character of Googie Gomez, a third-rate nightclub singer at the baths, which was created by Rita Moreno, who eventually won a Tony Award for her performance. (It was based, of course, on Bette Midler’s legendary appearances at the Continental Baths as the campy/trashy Divine Miss M.) Rosie Perez is strangely flat-footed and tentative in the role, though she manages to pull off the insanely cheesy Broadway medley that closes act one. I would have found the show completely unbearable if it weren’t for the hilarious, hard-working, and vanity-free Brooks Ashmanskas in the leading role of Chris, the flaming queen who serves as the garbageman’s tour guide to the baths. This actor, who stole Martin Short’s own show away from him, here channels Paul Lynde with the energy of Zero Mostel and Peter Allen combined. 

Here’s a recommendation: if you go see The Ritz, consider sitting in the balcony with your Bose noise-cancelling headphones on, the better to appreciate director Joe Mantello’s gift for casting hunky guys and convincing them to walk around Scott Pask’s triple-tiered bathhouse set wearing next to nothing. Undistracted by the dialogue, you can concentrate on the beefcake parade, which includes former porn star Ryan Idol smoking a cigar and sporting ‘70s sideburns. Just try not to wonder why guys are going in and out of the steam room in underpants, bathrobes, and thigh-high boots. 

The Advocate, November 20, 2007