The star of Roundabout’s Broadway revival of “The Ritz” is Scott Pask’s principal set, a gleaming, three-tiered pleasure dome depicting the interior of the eponymous gay bathhouse, studded with line upon line of bordello-red doors. But while the traffic moves frenetically around its maze of stairs, corridors and private rooms, and those doors slam ceaselessly open and shut, Terrence McNally’s 1975 comedy mostly groans along as a pallid echo of a time both wilder and more innocent, when gay sex was still a risque subject.
As in his starry but unsatisfying revival of “The Odd Couple” two seasons back, Joe Mantello’s slick direction is not always employed to best effect in comedy. In his overproduced staging of “The Ritz,” he plays it broad, fast and loud but reveals no feel for farce, which requires a deft balance of giddiness and precision that also eludes most of his cast.
What’s more distressing, however, is that Mantello lacks any special insight into the era so affectionately captured by McNally. As dated and occasionally feeble as the material is, it could have been a nostalgic time-warp back to the hedonistic disco days of pre-AIDS New York, when the gay community still hovered on the social margins and retained a last shred of underground inclusiveness that’s since given way to demarcation according to age, body-type and sexual subdivision.
The perfectly sculpted abs of the man-candy draped all over Pask’s set indicate a disregard for period authenticity. But it’s the failure to reflect beyond the superficial on the drives of gay men — not just for sex but for self-affirmation — in a unique window of time after Stonewall and before the ugly stigmatization of the 1980s that represents the revival’s missed opportunity. Only in the curtain call, when the cast boogies to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” is there some sense of the era’s rebellious energy.
Which is not to say there’s nothing here to enjoy. McNally’s dialogue is peppered with witty zingers, and he crafted two irresistible comic creations in swishy flamer Chris and hot-tempered Latina singer Googie Gomez, whose showbiz ambition is undiminished by her absence of talent.
Brooks Ashmanskas steals every scene as Chris, amplifying McNally’s skill at humanizing the most extreme of gay stereotypes. A bathhouse habitue with an unapologetic sex addiction (“Sex is just my way of saying hello”), Chris flits about, assuming coy poses in a purple kimono artfully arranged around his curvy belly.
Played quietly off to one side, his elaborate ritual of preparations for the evening — redecorating his private room, adjusting the lighting, full-body moisturizing — are more fun than the scene happening downstage.
As Googie, Rosie Perez steps with mixed success into the gaudy platform shoes worn by Rita Moreno in the original Broadway run and subsequent film. Moreno’s incensed cries, when mistaken for a transvestite, of “Tacky drag?” made her Googie a formidable spitfire.
Perez (looking disconcertingly like Eartha Kitt when she dons a turban) doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in the screechy role. Struggling with an unevenly exaggerated Hispanic accent, she fares better with the physical comedy than the verbiage, notably in her bathhouse cabaret act, a deliciously awful medley of butchered show tunes.
Given that Moreno earned as many laughs slaughtering just “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” it’s probably overkill, but the demented chutzpah of Perez’s Googie stringing together “Tomorrow,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Shall We Dance,” “Sabbath Prayer,” the whipping of Christ from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Rose’s Turn,” “People,” “Some People” and “Maybe This Time” makes you wish the production had made other such insanely audacious choices.
The thin plot spins around a hit ordered by a dying Italo-American patriarch on his sweet-natured schlub of a son-in-law, Gaetano (Kevin Chamberlin). Expecting a generic Jack LaLanne-type establishment, Gaetano stumbles into Manhattan gay cruise palace, the Ritz, thinking it’s the last place his brother-in-law Carmine (Lenny Venito) will look for him. A tangle of mistaken identities ensues when Gaetano signs in using Carmine’s name and then passes himself off as a big-time producer, fueling Googie’s feverish dreams of stardom.
The dialogue-driven fish-out-of-water comedy generally works better than the accelerated mayhem. However, Mantello and the likable but not quite endearing enough Chamberlin fail to locate both the pathos and the uplift of a man belittled and threatened by his overbearing family, who, after rubbing shoulders with the Ritz’s rebels and misfits, overcomes his nervous homophobia and finds the courage to stand up for himself. That scene between Gaetano and his confused wife (Ashlie Atkinson) plays as rote resolution rather than emotional catharsis.
Everyone works hard, notably Patrick Kerr as Claude, a chubby-chaser driven wild by Gaetano’s ample flesh. But there’s something strained and underwhelming about the proceedings.
In addition to Pask’s impressive set, craft contributions are lavish, from William Ivey Long’s character-enhancing period outfits (there are more towels and robes here than at Bed Bath & Beyond) to Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer’s dynamic lighting and some energizing snatches of disco hits. But the plush production only serves to expose the play’s weaknesses. Without any attempt to contextualize, its outrageousness now feels a little mummified.