Puttin’ on “The Ritz”

The mob meets 1970s gay culture, with mixed results

Jacob Coakley

Long before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, playwright Terrence McNally was celebrating gay life as positive and affirming, not tragic, with something to teach every hidebound straight man. And Las Vegas Little Theatre’s production of McNally’s 1975 farce The Ritz definitely advocates for the advancement of all things fabulous.

Like most farces, it has a simple setup. Hapless schmo Gaetano Proclo (played by Todd Simmonds) is on the run from his brother-in-law Carmine Vespucci (Scott Ast), who is energetically trying to carry out his dying father’s wish to have Proclo murdered. Eh, it’s the mob—these things happen. On the run, Proclo asks a cab driver to take him to the last place on earth any machismo-inflicted mob boss would think to look, and the cabbie deposits him at the Ritz, a gay bathhouse in Greenwich Village. Antics, as they say, ensue.

The Details

The Ritz
Three stars
Through November 23
Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m.
Las Vegas Little Theatre, 362-7996

It’s easy to mimic the catty, cutting tone and rhythms of a stereotypical queen, but it’s much harder to fill out those tones with something that’s actually appropriate yet witty. (Even Oscar Wilde had off days.) More subversive, though, at the time this play was originally produced on Broadway (1975), was to depict powerful and unrepentant yet queeny characters. This was, after all, a time when Paul Lynde, center square on Hollywood Squares, was still closeted. His one-liners and innuendo were fine as far as they went, as long as he stayed in the closet. To suggest that a flamingly homosexual character or person was not deviant, let alone had something to teach a man about standing up for himself, was just not common wisdom. Yet that’s the fundamental concept behind The Ritz. It can be seen, in part, as a coming-out party for homosexual culture, a celebration and satiric send-up of the bathhouse crowd’s contributions to the mainstream, in the form of Barry Manilow, Bette Midler and others.

Okay, so it works as a socially empowering statement, but does the script work as farce? It’s got the requisite homosexual stereotypes: slightly older, incredibly horny show queen; the chubby chaser; two young muscley go-go boys; man in cowboy hat and chaps. And even the straight side of things is well-represented stereotype-wise: overweight, wimpy milquetoast; distraught-yet-manipulative Italian princess; aggressive, overly macho Italian mob boss. Throw in a couple of mistaken identities and a stupendously bad cabaret number and voila, right?

Unfortunately, no. The script never reaches the manic pace a true farce needs to completely leave gravity behind, and instead relies on crusty farce conventions to move things along. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments—more if you’re devoted to show tunes—but perhaps because it trades so determinedly in stereotypes, it can’t quite get beyond them.

This doesn’t stop cast members from doing everything they can to their roles. Things are a little uneven in the large cast (it takes a brave director to try to coordinate 19 roles with no double-casting), but the main roles are ably filled. Simmonds isn’t given much to do with the rube Gaetano Proclo, other than be confused and then intimidated by all the homosexuality around him, but his deflated air and quick acceptance of the doyenne of the bathhouse, Chris (Brian Scott), are sweet. Armed with a whistle, an encyclopedic knowledge of show tunes and a libido the size of Montana, Scott’s Chris is the life of the party, even if no one else wants to admit it. Scott has the right style to be a queen looking for love and the requisite steel to slyly stand up to all bullies and teach Gaetano how to as well.

But the best laughs belong to the threesome of Googie (Olga Rios), Tiger (Michael Blair) and Duff (Michael Higdon). An aspiring performer with a Puerto Rican accent so thick she could loan it out to the Sharks and still have some change left over, Googie has a love/hate relationship with Broadway producers and Tiger and Duff, the bathhouse attendees and go-go boys who keep stringing her along with promises of making it big. Their cabaret show is the Act I finale and is filled with so much intentionally bad singing, silly choreography and mangled medleys (not to mention one heckuva bodysuit) that you’ll be roaring at the absurdity of it all. If the rest of the show reached such heights you’d have a classic. As it is you’ve still got a pretty amusing divertissement.


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