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The standard way to dismiss a second-rate sex farce is to reach for the metaphor easiest to hand – to say that the goings-on were mechanical rather than fulfilling. When the subject is Terrence McNally’s 1975 comedy The Ritz, however, now in revival from the Roundabout, to resort to carnal comparison is redundant. The play takes place at a gay bathhouse, in the pre-Aids era when hook-ups unassisted by the internet were at full roar.
No, the problem with Joe Mantello’s production is not that it fails to evoke the era, though a purist might point out that some of the percolating disco music comes less from the mid-1970s of the play’s Broadway debut than the late-1970s heyday of the revival’s venue, when it was the nightclub Studio 54. The problems are the more mundane ones associated with the farce genre: rhythm, characterisation, logistics.
To be fair, Mantello has done his best to provide a compass for all the semi-nude men prowling around Scott Pask’s brilliant three-tiered Chinese maze of a set. But Gaetano Proclo, the Italian-American character hiding out here from his murder-intent brother-in-law, is at sea for other reasons: not because of his confusion that the bathhouse is dark, dank and difficult to navigate but because the actor playing him, Kevin Chamberlain, has trouble making a mewling man vivid.
Chamberlain seems to be aiming for a kind of Bert Lahr-lite. Channelling the Cowardly Lion is a resonant strategy: McNally has said that one of the first farces he saw on Broadway was Feydeau’s Hotel Paradiso, starring Lahr and Angela Lansbury. Another actor in that production, James Coco, was Gaetano in The Ritz’s first Broadway incarnation.
I wish I had been around for the original in order to see not only Coco but also Rita Moreno as Googie Gomez. Playing this tone-deaf Puerto Rican spitfire hoping to revive her life in showbiz, Moreno’s successor, Rosie Perez, knows how to amuse us with line readings such as: “My career is no yoke.” And Perez’s medley of musical-comedy snippets is amusing in a drag-queen cabaret kind of way.
But Perez, like the evening itself, is mostly a tease. This lacklustre Ritz reminds us of the central irony of sex farce: it must frustrate the urges of its characters in order to satisfy the desires of its audience.