Scott Pask's three-story set for Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of The Ritz connotes farce — look at all those doors. Yet despite director Joe Mantello providing Terrence McNally's 1975 play with every physical accoutrement he can, The Ritz has aged ungracefully, proving the best farces are timeless, not stuck in their cultural moment.
The curtain rises on an Italian clan weeping as its patriarch is dying. His last wish, uttered in a sputter, is for the husband of his daughter Vivian (Ashlie Atkinson) to wear cement shoes, or whatever method of murder his grieving heirs choose. The husband, Gaetano Proclo (Kevin Chamberlin), elects to hide in a gay bathhouse, but not for long: Carmine (Lenny Venito), his brother-in-law, locates him, as does Brick (Terrence Riordan), a buff private dick with a castrato's voice, plus a posse of gay men, from Claude (Patrick Kerr), a chubby chaser hot for Proclo's girth, to Chris (Brooks Ashmanskas), whose high flamboyance fuels his libido. If farce were a kingdom, McNally would proffer every key — mistaken identities, slamming doors, character chases. So why don't we laugh more?
We do chuckle when Googie Gomez (Rosie Perez) enters. If you know your gay-bathhouse history (who doesn't?), you'll connect Googie, an untalented actor-singer aiming to leap from the steam room to stardom, with Bette Midler, who famously sang at the Continental Baths at the time McNally was writing the play. Not too bright and prone to Spanish-inflected malapropisms, Googie thinks Proclo is a producer; she desires him as much as everyone else. Fearing for his life (and often his heterosexuality), the poor man ricochets all over the set like a pinball. More chuckling ensues.
Notice I didn't say hilarity. In the Tony-winning role originated by Rita Moreno, Perez hits every flat note pitch-imperfectly and wears those 1970s wigs with disco-diva magic. But her accent wobbles, and in general there's nothing especially farcical about her performance; maybe Perez is just trying too hard to be funny. Most of the supporting cast — handsome men like former gay porn star Ryan Idol (the name of his character is Crisco Patron) — fall into the same trap: Buttless chaps only amuse for so long when you've got Marlboro Men missing any mania. Plus McNally's script amplifies it all: The anachronistic references work only if you understand them, and it's hard to build a cackling farce on little more than hedonistic nostalgia. Words that might have been permissible to toss around in 1975 — "faggot" comes to mind — play very oddly now, recalling yesteryear's stereotypes, not today's punch lines.
Equally odd, however, the best comedy comes from Ashmanskas, who saunters in a short silk wrap, minces more efficiently than a Cuisinart blender, and reminds us that camp is also a verb. Chris is a character who might well have appeared in an early draft of The Boys in the Band, but he's nevertheless whole — a reveler in the sexually liberated time when bathhouses embodied the gay social whirl and yet someone we can still laugh at without the nagging feeling we're guffawing at clichĂŠs.
This is all very intellectual for a gay-bathhouse farce, so let me rave over the talent-show scene in which Seth Rudetsky sings "Magic to Do" from Pippin while operating a marionettelike Fosse tribute. Idol delivers his lines about Crisco with the requisite slippery charm, and when Googie sings off-key and a neon sign reading "The Ritz" loses part of its "R," "The Pitz" is a great sight gag. But it's kind of symbolic, too.
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company at Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., NYC. Oct. 11-Dec. 9. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., and Sun., 2 p.m. (212) 719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org. Casting by Jim Carnahan.