Sunday, October 14, 2007

First of Two Preview Pieces on The Ritz on Broadway

Paean to the Tubs

Kevin Chamberlin, star of the revival of Terrence McNally's "The Ritz," seen with Matthew Montelongo, in chaps, in rehearsal.

Studio 54254 W. 54th St.
Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.,Wed., Sat., Sun. at 2 p.m.
In previews, opens Oct. 11 Through Dec. 9 $30-$95; or 212-719-1300

Playwright Terrence McNally sat down in his Village apartment recently to discuss the revival of his play "The Ritz" about a straight garbage company owner hiding from his homicidal Mafia brother-in-law in a notorious gay bathhouse. The farce was a hit when it first appeared and the film version with Jack Weston and Rita Moreno is a cult favorite.With the hottest director on Broadway, Joe Mantello, at the helm, and Rosie Perez and Kevin Chamberlin taking the lead roles, hopes are high for the Roundabout Theatre's production at Studio 54, now in previews and set to open October 11. But is the time right to mount a pre-AIDS play that revels in a spirit of sexual hedonism or have we lost our sense of humor about ourselves in the 32 years since the play first appeared?

CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: How did the revival come about?
TERRENCE MCNALLY: Joe Mantello has wanted to do it with Rosie Perez for several years ever since she did my play "Frankie and Johnny." We agreed she'd be wonderful for it. It's taken several years for all of us to be available at the same time and for it to make sense for the Roundabout Theatre to produce. I'm really glad we are doing it at Studio 54. I think it's a great space for it because you are going into a notorious place from the '70s to see a play about a notorious place from the '70s. Then Kevin Chamberlin came along to join us and the time finally seemed right.

CM: How is the time right in terms of our culture?
TM: A good comedy is always welcome and if the play works at all it's as a sex farce and a funny one. You don't need a time in your culture to enjoy a good comedy, but I think it's the right time now to look back at that whole period of liberation that was the story of the '70s. It's very much a pre-AIDS play. At the height of the plague certainly the play couldn't be done, but I think we can look back now and celebrate what was wonderful about the sexual liberation and revolution. We had to wait this long to do it again.

CM: Were there any changes that you made?
TM: No, if people don't get all the references, well, I saw "King Lear" at BAM the other night and I didn't get all the references Shakespeare included but you get the sense of it. The year the play was written New York had like ten competing bathhouses, the Everard, Man's Country, etc., and my fictitious Ritz. But we didn't update any of that since there aren't ten big bathhouses operating in New York any more so that would be inaccurate.

CM: There were a couple little changes made to language that could be interpreted as references to AIDS?
TM: There was a line about wearing slippers because of not wanting to get athlete's foot, and someone says you'd be lucky if that's all you caught. We removed that because it would just make the audience uncomfortable or think of AIDS. I wasn't even thinking of AIDS when I wrote it of course, I was thinking of syphilis or gonorrhea. But that's all we've done.The play was written at the height of "this is great, this is fun" and heterosexuals were doing the same thing. Plato's Retreat was going strong. So it wasn't just a gay phenomenon. A lot was happening in New York in that period and I think it's nice to look back at and celebrate it.

CM: Did you think about how the play might reflect on our new repressive era, like for example the whole dust-up about poor Senator Craig and his toe-tapping in the men's room?
TM: The play is about homophobia and its defeat at the hands of liberation, so that's there, but I didn't rewrite anything to reflect current times, there's not a new line in the play.

CM: Do you think audiences will be thinking about current events like the Senator Craig thing when they see the play now?
TM: Well, there is an entrapment in the play, but it's so comic. There's the dumb, straight arrow detective and the violent homophobe Mafia guy wanting to come up with grounds to kill his brother-in-law but they are such figures of absurdity, which I guess you could say the senator is, too. Those identifications are parallels an audience may make, but I've not done anything to make them. The self-loathing homosexual, like the senator I assume is, is really not addressed in the play. It's about homosexuals who are really happy and comfortable being who they are, including being chubbychasers and all sorts of other things. There's no one in the bathhouse who doesn't want to be, let's put it that way.

CM: In the play, everyone at the Ritz is celebrating their homosexuality in a way that we don't so much now. People in bathhouses and sex venues these days are engaging in very serious performances of their persona now.
TM: To my knowledge there's nothing like the clubs of the '70s now.

CM: I was hoping you would tell me that the whole cast of "The Ritz" had gone on a field trip to a bathhouse during rehearsals.
TM: Maybe they did! That's their business! I don't even know the sexual proclivities of all the cast members. It's a big cast, as many as we had originally. The trick was finding enough bodies that didn't look too perfect as so many gay men today seem to project such physical perfection with abs and all. That wasn't true in those days. It was more the drugs and the sideburns and the Afro you were proud of.Mark Spitz was a body ideal at the time of this play. There was this famous poster of him that everybody owned even if it was inside a closet door. You look at it now and it's this skinny little guy with long hair and he was a sexual fantasy, it shows how much we've changed.

CM: How do you think that the stories that we as gay men need and want to be told have changed since the '70s?
TM: It's nice to be reminded of a time before AIDS. The younger generation doesn't know of that time. It's a celebratory play, not a cautionary play. I think a healthy society can look at itself at any period in its evolution. Some are less enjoyable than others.To pretend AIDS didn't happen would be as irresponsible as pretending the sexual revolution didn't happen and the early days of Stonewall. The play is very much in the same time as Stonewall. I mean Bette Midler sang at the baths with Barry Manilow as her accompanist and she sang after the first Gay Pride Parade in Washington Square.

CM: Where you there?
TM: Yes, it was amazing. She sang "Friends" to thousands just a couple blocks from here. I saw her at the baths, too! Those kinds of performances are where the idea for the Googie Gomez character that Rosie Perez is playing now came from. The entertainment was just at a much higher level than Googie is! I was even at the Continental Baths the notorious night when Eleanor Steber gave an opera recital and Leonard Bernstein and his wife were there! It was the era of radical chic, a crazy time of drugs and a lot of sex and a lot of laughter. People didn't stay home, they went out every night. I went out every night, but that was 30 years ago!

CM: You once called "The Ritz" a subversive play.
TM: I said it was subversive and I was surprised it was on Broadway. I was surprised it ran for a year and that straight audiences would come and enjoy this sex farce. It just says gays can make as much fools of themselves trying to get laid as straight people can.

©GayCityNews 2007

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