Circle Theatre revives a breakthrough play

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By Doug Deuchler

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Circle Theatre's new production is an uproarious revival of the 1975 comedy, The Ritz. Set in a gay bathhouse, this rollicking show garnered huge laughs on opening night. Director Bob Knuth's large and lively cast of 20 serves up a very entertaining evening.

Terrence McNally's first Broadway hit established him as a high-profile playwright. It's a cheerful little time capsule to a bygone era — the post Stonewall, pre-AIDS decade. Yes, it's chock full of every gay cliché you can think of and relies on cartoonish stereotypes for its laughs, yet it's never truly mean-spirited or offensive. It's friendly and fun and famously unapologetic for its display of gay male sexuality.

The plot is busy but not terribly complicated. The set-up is especially simple. Dennis Schenll is clueless middle-aged straight man, Gaetano Proclo, a minor mob flunky in the "garbage collection industry" who's been targeted for elimination. Trying to elude his homicidal brother-in-law (David Krajecki) who is literally gunning for him, Gaetano seeks refuge in The Ritz bathhouse.

In many ways, this is an old-fashioned French farce with lots of door slamming, silly disguises, mistaken identity, people hiding under beds, and frantic chases down corridors.

In case you're wondering, although we see lots of men clad only in towels, there's never full nudity and no profanity. In terms of sex, The Ritz is a conventional sitcom that's about as vulgar as a beach party movie. Some of the adult situations are laugh-out-loud funny but there's nothing that might disturb or offend anyone. (Well, perhaps Rick Santorum might not be amused.)

Shaun Quinlan is priceless as Chris, The Ritz's sweet but slutty Queen Bee. It's a role that would become much imitated in the next few decades. Think of best friend Jack MacFarland on Will & Grace. Quinlan is simultaneously warm and lovably outrageous. For Chris, sex is "just a way of saying hello."

A major highlight of this production is Elizabeth Morgan in the role of Googie Gomez, a flamboyant, heavily accented Latin lounge singer with lots of chutzpah. To her, any role is within range. (Rita Moreno won a Tony playing Googie on Broadway.) The character is supposed to be a no-talent entertainer, but Morgan, with top-notch comic timing, is incredibly good.

One of the show's high points is a crazy show-tune medley (featuring every hoary Broadway hit song from "Climb Every Mountain" to "June Is Bustin' Out All Over") sung by Morgan with hilarious back-up by Nicholas Reinhart and Jordan Phelps. This cabaret act alone is worth the price of admission.

With menacing self-determination, Googie mistakes Gaetano for a big-time theatrical producer, then pursues him with a vengeance.

A bumbling but hunky private detective with a high-pitched Minnie Mouse voice is well played by Alexander Sharon.

Heavy-set Gaetano attracts the unwelcome attentions of a relentless "chubby chaser" (John Cardone). At one point, Cardone, Schenll, and Quinlan do a lip-synch Andrews Sisters' skit, "The Gay Caballeros," which is a major hoot.

Nancy Greco is very funny as Vivian, Gaetano's hysterical wife, who shows up at the bathhouse looking for her garbage-man-on-the-run-hubby. When Gaetano took this woman as his wife, he literally became "married to the mob."

Most of the mayhem is quite funny but there are moments when the energy flags. Farce requires all-out fast-pacing to maintain its electric zaniness.

As audience members locate their seats, there's a pre-curtain scene in which a gangster patriarch is on his deathbed. It's a bit disorienting at first to enter the auditorium and discover action already in progress on stage. But this mostly dialogue-free prologue merely sets up the plot. The old hood, surrounded by his priest and extended family members, expresses his dying wishes: to have his son-in-law Gaetano killed so the family can reclaim his share of the family's garbage collection business.

With the advent of the AIDS epidemic in the early '80s, men in towels hooking up for anonymous sex was suddenly no laughing matter. So this play and the film version, starring Rita Moreno, Treat Williams, F. Murray Abraham, and Jerry Stiller, slipped from public memory. The show was seldom revived for decades. But as we see with this Circle production, it can be an enjoyable period piece. The time is not clearly identified in the program, but it seems to have been rolled forward a bit into the later '70s disco era. We even encounter the Village People doing their signature hits, "Macho Man" and "Y.M.C.A."

The play was supposedly inspired by Bette Midler's legendary appearances as the "Divine Miss M" at the Continental Baths of New York City early in her career.

You know it's a farce when you see a dozen doors on stage. The solid two-level set, designed by director Knuth, is impressive.

The choreography and sound direction are by Kevin Bellie. During sudden romantic moments, we hear the schmaltzy theme from the old Bette Davis tearjerker, Now, Voyager. Aaron Benham is musical director. Jesus Perez designed the costumes.

This play and the movie were indeed significant breakthroughs three and a half decades ago. This was the first mainstream work in which gay characters didn't suffer nobly, hate themselves, or agonize over their sexuality.

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