Terrence McNally
Recalls the Making of The Ritz

Terrence McNally
            Recalls the Making of The Ritz

Terrence
McNally's The Ritz was born during the 1970s
sexual revolution, an era of liberation extravagantly
celebrated at the Continental Baths, a gay New York
bathhouse where an unknown Bette Midler, Barry
Manilow, Wayland Flowers, and others once performed
for a towel-clad audience.

Today, its author
calls the play, set in a bathhouse not unlike that
exotic establishment, ''a period piece.''

''There was a
time at the height of the AIDS crisis that I would not have
allowed a revival...but I think we're ready to see it
again,'' McNally says.

Enter the
Roundabout Theatre Company, which has revived the comedy at
another iconic 1970s landmark, Studio 54, in a production
directed by Joe Mantello and starring Kevin Chamberlin
and Rosie Perez.

''The Ritz
is a sex farce, my tribute to Feydeau,'' says McNally,
the author of Love! Valour! Compassion! and
Master Class as well as the books for such
musicals as Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime,
and The Full Monty, referring to Georges
Feydeau, the master of French farce during the end of
the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.

''I always wanted
to write in that style, and it's the only play I've
done that way. I remember The Ritz with great
affection, and I've often wondered why I never wrote another
one [farce]. I think part of the reason was that it
was just so much work. Farces are really fine-tuned.
They are like Swiss watches.

''And they are
very hard to get going -- all the exposition. But once
they do, all you have to say is, 'I'll think I'll go in the
next room' and the audience gets hysterical. They know
what's in the next room.''

The plot of
The Ritz could not be more ready-made for
confusion: Straight garbage collector (Chamberlin) from
Cleveland on the run from a Mob relative finds refuge in a
gay bathhouse where a determined yet talent-free
entertainer named Googie Gomez (Perez) mistakes him
for a Broadway producer.

Not many theaters
could produce The Ritz today -- making it
perfect for the nonprofit Roundabout, according to the
playwright.

''It's an
ambitious play in terms of its physical size,'' McNally
explains. ''A small theater can't do it. There's close to 30
people in it, a lot of people with one or two lines.
You can't say it's a bathhouse and only have the
principals onstage. Where's everybody else?''

Then there's the
large set, designed here by Scott Pask. It's three
levels, and has, in keeping with French farce, ''a lot of
doors,'' McNally says.

Mantello had
always been interested in reviving the play, which had a
yearlong run on Broadway in 1975 and won a Tony for Rita
Moreno, who originated the role of Googie Gomez.
Serious thoughts of resurrecting The Ritz first
surfaced after Perez went into the Broadway revival of
McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de
Lune,
which Mantello directed in 2003.

''We all loved
working with her, and Joe said Rosie was the only one who
could do Googie Gomez now,'' McNally says. ''Rosie is from
Brooklyn. She is of the streets and of the people.''

''They didn't
have to twist my arm,'' Perez says with a laugh. She had
read The Ritz in high school and then again in
college. Plus she had been a fan of Moreno's since watching
her on The Electric Company.

''At first, it
was a bit of a struggle for me because Rita Moreno is such
an icon,'' the actress recalls. ''I was putting a lot of
pressure on myself. When I called her to ask her for
her blessing in passing the torch, she said, 'You
don't need my blessing. Just make Googie your own and
make her real.'''

The idea for
The Ritz grew out of McNally's teaching
days when he was a playwright-in-residence at Yale
University more than three decades ago.

''I was assigned
three or four students and I met with them twice a week,
kind of a mentor program,'' McNally recalls. ''At the same
time, Bob Brustein [head of the Yale School of Drama]
asked me to write a play.''

Out of that
request came what was then called The Tubs,
slang for the baths. The play had a well-received production
at the Yale Repertory Theatre and was picked up by
Broadway producer Adela Holzer.

''It got its
title changed because at the same time a play came along
off-Broadway called Tubstrip,'' McNally
recalls. ''Everyone thought it would be confusing. At the
time, I was very bummed, but now, in retrospect, I'm
glad. The Ritz is a better title.''

The play, a
success with most of the critics, became one of the first
plays with unapologetic gay characters to reach a mainstream
audience.

''I kept
thinking, It's quite subversive. This play's being done
on Broadway and no one is saying anything [against
it],
'' McNally says. ''I think the play is about
homophobia, and it celebrates liberation, exactly what
Stonewall was all about."

One of the actors
in the original Broadway production was F. Murray
Abraham, who appeared as a frequent customer at the Ritz.

''I played a very
flamboyant, very 'out' homosexual,'' Abraham recalls.
''He was someone who made a lot of noise about being gay --
in a happy, fun way. But, in fact, he was the sanest
person onstage. That was a very important step. I
think it's still important for people to understand. If
you are gay, then be out. It's much healthier.''

And Abraham had
no hesitation about playing a gay man.

''Not a chance,''
he says. ''It's a great part. The thing I discovered
was how naive I was. Because I'm straight, they said I had
to visit gay bars to see what the world was like.... I
had no idea how hot it was. People walking around in
towels. All that steam. And there was powerful music
happening all the time. It was a very sexy atmosphere.''

The setting of
The Ritz was considered quite exotic in
1975, according to McNally. ''But based on rehearsals and a
reading we did earlier this year, I think it still works,''
he says.

''I don't think
people go to my plays for their plots. They are not
melodramas -- 'Oh, what's going to happen next.' I am more
interested in what happens moment to moment between
two people. But The Ritz is not like that. It has
subplots. There are four different stories in The
Ritz.
''

According to
Abraham, McNally ''writes for actors. His plays are a
pleasure to do, but what he says is important too. And he's
like a fountain -- he keeps on writing and writing and
writing.''

As Perez puts it,
''I have never met a more funny, lighthearted
playwright in my life -- and I've met a lot of them. And you
get happy with him. It builds your confidence. That's
what makes doing The Ritz so much
fun.'' (Michael Kuchwara, AP)

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