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San Francisco by Richard Connema

New Conservatory Theatre Center
Puts On The Ritz

Also see Richard's recent review of Sleeping with Straight Men

The New Conservatory Theatre Center Pride season of 2001-2002 concludes its season with Terrence McNally’s politically incorrect farce The Ritz. Director Ed Decker has assembled an exceptionally interesting cast to play some of the bizarre characters in this travesty of a gay bathhouse during the pre-AIDS period of the 1970s.

The Ritz originally opened at the Longacre Theatre in New York on January 20, 1975. I saw the original production with Jack Weston, Jerry Stiller, F. Murray Abraham, and George Dzundra. The comedy ran 400 performances. It was made into a film at Warner's in 1976 with Richard Lester directing mostly the same cast (Treat Williams played the falsetto voiced detective and Rita Moreno was the Puerto Rican bombshell who sang nightly in the baths). The comedy was loosely based on the famous Club Baths in New York which had a night club to entertain the boys. Bette Midler got her start there. There was a brief revival of the gay comedy in 1983 at the old Xenon Theatre (now the Henry Miller's) in New York. The cast included Joey Faye and Michael Greer. By this time, The Ritz had become quite passé and after 14 previews, it played just one night and closed. Only a few regional companies have attempted to revive the ludicrous comedy. It’s like a Feydeau’s classic meeting a gay Marx Brothers comedy.

A straight guy from Cleveland goes on the lam from the Mafia and hides out in a New York gay bathhouse, which he believes is a gym for men. It takes him a while to catch on to what goes down in the steam room. Comic mistaken identities, bizarre chases and unusual confrontations result in some very funny situations. Our heavyweight hero is even chased by a determined “chubby chaser.” Add to this mix Googie Gomez, a Puerto Rican lounge singer who wants to make it big as a nightclub singer, who appears nightly at the bath’s night club. She latches onto anyone she thinks looks like a producer. Towels drape, fly and tease in this anything goes comedy.

There are some good comedy performances by members of the large company. Stealing the show is Jeff Larson who plays the very feminine gay queen Chris. His is a tour de force of camp comedy. Some of his mannerisms remind me of Emmet (Peter Paige) in the television series Queer as Folk. Laura Sottile plays the Puerto Rican singer just a little over the top. She is energetic and her voice is part Charo and part Lupe Velez. Her rendition of a song from Gypsy with two young gay males in tight leather pants doing strange movements is funny. However, there are times when you cannot understand a word she is saying.

Richard Ryan as the guy running away from the mob and Robert Cooper, a member of the mob out to kill the hero, play stereotype Italian gangsters. Nathan Frye makes the most out of a difficult part as Michael Brick, the helium-voiced private detective. However, his voice does get on your nerves, especially in the second act. Kristi Scott, as the hero's wife, is excellent as a loud, screaming Italian woman. Jim Hoggart has his moments as the chubby chaser who brings all kinds of food to the bath to “fatten” up his prey. The two cute boys in tight leather pants are Jeff Manabat, recently seen in Babes in Arms at the Willows, and Craig Stein. They are properly mincing characters. Randel Hart, a regular at NCTC, has a small role as a cowboy wearing only chaps. His backside must get cold running around on that stage. The rest of the cast has very little to do but to run around in towels.

The whole McNally script is rather silly, but I found myself laughing at some of the antics of this zany crew. If you like excessive camp and cheap bathhouse jokes and a lot of running in and out of doors then this production would be your cup of tea.

The Ritz' extended run ended July 14 the New Conservatory Theater Center at 25 Van Ness Ave. Tickets can be obtained by calling 415-861-8972 or on line at www.ticketweb.com. For more information on the upcoming 2002-2003 season please go to www.nctcsf.org.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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