When McNally's slyly political statement about gay liberation opened 30-plus years ago, audiences were ready to laugh at a naughty if sanitized glimpse of gay bathhouse shenanigans. More importantly, they were perhaps also prepared to overlook the strain the playwright evidenced in scenes constructed of traditional farce conceits like mistaken identity and people hiding in tight spaces -- including a steam room that blasts steam out its swinging door. Today, the strain shows in a script that might work its wished-for wonders as a 10-minute Saturday Night Live sketch, but at almost two hours, quickly runs out of steam.
The plot -- no more or less flimsy than most farce plots -- concerns Cleveland's own Gaetano Proclo (the always appealing Kevin Chamberlin), who's on the run in Manhattan from brother-in-law Carmine Vespucci (Lenny Venito) after a patriarch's death-bed wish. Taken by taxi to a men's-only spa greatly resembling the famed Continental Baths, Gaetano arrives on the same night Googie Gomez (Rosie Perez), a talent-challenged Bette Midler wannabe, is hoping her ambitious cabaret act will be seen by a producer who'll make her a star. While men of various physiques and sexual proclivities wander in and out of rooms, Gaetano and Carmine play cat-and-mouse with the aid of a P. I. named Michael Brick (Terrence Riordan), possibly named because he's built like a proverbial brick house, but who has a voice that never dropped at adolescence. Also rapaciously circulating in flowing kimonos is swishy, if not-exactly-dishy Chris (the scene-stealing Brooks Ashmanskas) as well as knobby-kneed chubby-chaser Claude Perkins (Patrick Kerr).
Some of the shenanigans still work well. Googie's act, which McNally doesn't detail on the written page, is a patchwork of Broadway tunes the thick-accented entertainer shouldn't be singing and to which the bewigged Perez gives her all. Yes, there's a hilarious Pippin take-off (also not specified by McNally) that Seth Rudetsky gets to dance before he's interrupted by one of the many characters who make across the stage and through the orchestra aisles. Yes, there are a couple of near-couplings that girth-and-mirth advocate Claude instigates and that Kerr enlivens with fevered fervor. Yes, there's a clever denouement twist and even a lively curtain call, choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, who previously had fun with Googie's go-going. But there aren't enough of these moments to add up to something consistently momentous.
Scott Pask's bordello-red-and-black set may have more doors than any other farce has had in farce history. But the production's problem actually may lie with those doors, which are supposed to provide theatrical punctuation. However, because of the realistic bathhouse seductions Mantello has blocked -- with men following each other into cubicles -- the farce's staccato rhythm is frequently diluted. Too often, a kind of languor settles on the action. Only a sequence where Googie enters the steam room and men cupping their private parts flee contains the spontaneity the entire enterprise needs.
There is another problem with The Ritz, which is carefully ensconced in its relatively recent timeframe, particularly by William Ivey Long's costumes. (When, needless to say, there are costumes.) When McNally wrote his romp, the world wasn't aware of the impending problem of AIDS, which the dramatist and his producers are hoping nobody will give much sober thought to now. But it's hard to ignore that the kind of toweled men here hooking up for quick enjoyment are -- unbeknownst to them -- endangering each other's lives. (For example, would the orgy-loving Chris still be alive today?)
Back in 1975, McNally wanted The Ritz to be a cheerful argument for understanding and for a freer attitude towards sexuality. Unfortunately in 2007, the darker question underneath the yuks remains no laughing matter.