Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 9, 2007
The Ritz by Terrence McNally. Directed by Joe Mantello. Set design by Scott Pask. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Sound design by Tony Meola. Hair and wig design by Paul Huntley. Choreography by Christopher Gattelli. Cast: Rosie Perez, Kevin Chamberlin, with Brooks Ashmanskas; Ashlie Atkinson, Ryan Idol, Patrick Kerr, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Terrence Riordan, Seth Rudetsky, Adam Sietz, David Turner, Lenny Venito, Teddy Coluca, Mark Leydorf, Billy Magnussen, Matthew Montelongo, Angela Pietropinto, Jeffrey Evan Thomas, Josh Breckenridge, Justin Clynes, Andrew R. Cooksey, Nick Mayo, Dillon Porter.
Not that you'll mind by the time her concert arrives at the end of Act I of The Ritz, the 1975 Terrence McNally comedy being revived by Roundabout at Studio 54. As played by Rosie Perez, Googie is both Goddess of Comedy and Demon of Broadway: She may sacrifice nearly a dozen standards at the altar of tunelessness, plowing her way through "People" and "Shall We Dance?" like a demonic amalgam of Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, and late-career Danny Kaye, but oh how hilariously and fully she embodies the go-for-broke spirit of a woman so desperate for her shot that she'll risk everything for the chance of making it happen.
This single-minded, bulldozer-burly focus is the very essence of farce, and exactly what must power The Ritz if it's to achieve its fullest potential. This quality is missing in significant quantities in this production, which has been directed by Joe Mantello with a serious eye for humor (of which, it must be said, there's no shortage) but a deficit of the devastating truth on which the hardest laughs in the theatre are invariably based. The result, then, is a midnight fraternity romp for the nearest sorority house, in which the dressing up - or, rather, dressing down - is done with a wink and a nod toward the knowledge that, as soon as the giggles are over with, everyone's going to pair off so the real fun can start.
Ideally, the atmosphere is more Molière than Hasty Pudding - a place where suggestion is the ultimate aphrodisiac and surviving until the climax of the plot greatly akin, well, to a climax of another kind. Unfortunately, you seldom sense from Mantello's work here the awareness that, despite the provocative surroundings, The Ritz is less about specific dirty deeds than an even more basic human desire: simple connection.
For everyone has been stripped of it in one way or another, and they're all at the Ritz tonight to reclaim that key portion of themselves. Gaetano Proclo (Kevin Chamberlin) is on the run from his Italian brother-in-law Carmine (Lenny Venito) for committing the unpardonable crime of marrying Carmine's sister. Michael Brick (Terrence Riordan), the hunky hit man with a heart of gold and a voice of helium, is longing to reconcile his job with his own ever-developing moral sense, while Chris (Brooks Ashmanskas) is just hoping to find someone willing to share his room, and the out-on-a-limb Googie is intent on performing her breakthrough set for the producer who's come tonight to rescue her from this backwater dive.
It doesn't take long - two scenes, tops - for all this to become terrifically tangled, and McNally smoothes over the relative dearth of Noises Off door play with carefully convoluted plotting that keeps you fascinated throughout. But Mantello's direction, and a great deal of the acting, are too broad to let all the fine detail work shine through. Nearly everyone is in on the joke, which is deadly for farce - and the equivalent of chain-smoking for general theatrical health as well.
Only in Ashmanskas do you find the complete journey of someone traveling from loneliness to satisfaction, breaking through the archetypal queen to find a man who learns the value of selflessness in a selfish world. For once perfectly sized in a role, Ashmanskas finds a delicate grace in Chris that guides him believably from prowling alley cat to outright regality. Chris, already the most knowing of the central characters, becomes ruler of his kingdom by evening's end, and Ashmanskas's confidence is the infectious reason why.
Chamberlin tours through his role, exploring numerous different colors for Gaetano without hitting on the precise life-or-death intensity that must spellbind so many of the Ritz's libidinous inhabitants, and us. The amazement he displays at each new development - first he's being pursued by "chubby chaser" Claude (Patrick Kerr), now he's locked out of his room - is more the ironic kind of Harvey Korman on The Carol Burnett Show than that of a resolute heterosexual trapped in truly unfamiliar and potentially dangerous - or so he thinks, anyway - surroundings. (Scott Pask's swank set doesn't heighten the aura of countercultural mystery, unless you consider the Las Vegas Strip the height of the shadowy unknown.)
If Riordan also has trouble balancing his vocal woman with his physical man (much of the time, he sounds like a dog's broken chew toy), Kerr fares better with Claude, revealing the depths of his dementedness only in carefully measured doses. Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and David Turner are surprisingly compelling as the friendly cleaning couple who befriend the befuddled Gaetano and somehow wind up singing and dancing behind Googie as she stumbles her way to delusion-driven stardom.
Perez is perfect in that scene, if rather incomprehensible and impenetrable the rest of the time; her need for show-biz success only seems truly vital when she's in the midst of pursuing it (and failing miserably). As her songs mount and the body count increases - Styne and Sondheim, Bock and Harnick, and Kander, and Ebb are also among her victims - so too does the realization set in that sometimes people end up where they must be, and that Googie's claim to infamy - even when occupied by recognizable talents like the original Rita Moreno, or Perez this time around - is one that's well-deserved.
The play she's a part of, though, fares far better. Fears that it might feel dated have proven unfounded: In some ways, it feels even more concrete than once it might have, because the increased tolerance and understanding of the last 32 years has seen to it that you accept everyone as equals, and judge them based solely on the free-range ridiculousness they bring to the proceedings and not on qualities as primitive or reductive as sexual orientation. If it's wonderful to be free to consider these characters on the same standardized level of those who traipse their way through Feydeau, it's nonetheless a shame that so many inhabiting this version of The Ritz don't withstand that scrutiny.