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Terrence McNally
Recalls the Making of The Ritz

Terrence McNally
Recalls the Making of The Ritz

Terrence_mcnally

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.

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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