There comes a point in Circle Theatre’s production of Terrence McNally’s The Ritz where you realize, as hard as this eager-to-please cast works, this is one of those novelty plays that’s a victim of time. Back in 1975, when McNally’s farce premiered on Broadway, things like bath houses, steam rooms and flamboyant, randy gays elicited guffaws and pearl clutching from audiences as such things were rarely discussed in mixed company, let alone the legitimate stage. So Kudos to McNally — a gay man — for bringing this subsection of gay culture to the mainstream.
Yes, watching a bumbling straight dude (Dennis Schnell) find himself mixed up in the bizarro world of a gay bath house (where it seems like gay sex involves nothing more than donning feather boas mincing about) must have been quite something back in the day. However, there are only so many times one can endure seeing a hetero outsider, in an attempt to dodge a hit man (did I mention it’s a farce?), naively run into the illicit steam room only to run out screaming in horror (while holding his backside) before the conceit quickly, well, loses steam.
Ok, so I have reservations with the play. Fine. However, Circle Theatre does all it can to salvage McNally’s dated script with a very strong ensemble cast and solid direction by Bob Knuth (who also designed the multi-tiered, door slammingly friendly set, complete with posters of Babs, Barbara and Judy, natch). Most notably, the full-bodied Schnell keeps the energy up, proving an able and immensely likable physical comedian. John Cardone, as a high-strung chubby chaser who fruitlessly pursues the resident straight guy in hideout, also gets some well-earned laughs.
And in full-out scene stealing mode, Elizabeth Morgan is a wonderfully surprising Googie Gomez, the bathhouse’s fiery, third-rate Puerto Rican nightclub singer. Googie is one of those roles that is pretty much guaranteed to walk away with the show — she’s a real character with some wacky one liners, not to mention a ridiculously horrible musical/disco medley to liven things up in the first act. And then there are her disco-diva-meets-latina-carnival-performer outfits. In a less capable actress’s hands, the role could easily become a campy scenery chewer; however, Morgan’s Googie is a wonderfully weary creation, filled with droll line readings capped with burning glares. Think a sassy Puerto Rican Bea Arthur (if such a thing can even be thunk).
“The Ritz” plays through April 1 at Circle Theatre in Oak Park. More info here >