Let's start with the good news. Lara Grice, for instance. She is a pleasure and a treasure. In The Ritz, currently on the boards at Le Petit, Grice plays Googie, a flaky Hispanic singer determined to find her ticket out of pits like The Pit (a nightclub in the labyrinthine interior of a gay bathhouse and hotel) where she is currently the headliner.
Recently, we saw Grice as the beleaguered young dean in Spinning Into Butter at Southern Rep. There, she provided a graceful and poised center of gravity, amid a world of problem people. She projected a Mary Tyler Moore-ish mixture of reasonableness, warmth and humor.
As Googie, she's an endearing and sexy crackpot. And, listen, we have seen enough Latin Lady stereotypes to be a little jaded on the subject. So, the trick is harder than it looks. She just bites into the character on a very convincing and funny level. To pick a tiny, but to me delicious example: when a trail of maniacs come running through her act (doing a broad "chase" bit), Googie seems almost not to notice, but the almost-not-noticing is composed of equal measures of fatalism and a total determination to keep things going, no matter what happens in this dump she's stuck in. In fact, the only moments Googie lost me slightly was when she put up her dukes. She seemed like the kind that would either charm you or deck you.
The nightclub sequences in general are the high point of the show (perhaps because they have the least to do with Terrence McNally's script -- but more on that later).
Rene Piazza, who does a fine comic job as the harried brother-in-law of a Mafioso who wants to kill him, achieves a moment of resplendent nonsense when he steps out of the drag Anderson Sister act and does his solo. Worth the price of admission, by itself.
And the rest of the cast is certainly up to snuff -- among them: Rusty Tennant, as the moron private eye, cursed with a castrati voice; Dane Rhodes as the moron Mafioso, who plans to set up his brother-in-law in a false homosexual tryst and then off him in a fraudulent crime of passion; Renée Maxwell as Piazza's wife and voice of reason (so to speak); Patrick Mendelson as Chris, the swish satyr; Kyle Daigrepont as a chubby chaser (he's got a thing for flab) and Michael Salinas and Matthew Mickal as the lookalike Tiger and Duff.
Now, before I unburden my heart, a few disclaimers. First of all: the above-mentioned attractions are reason enough to go see the show. Secondly, I feel duty bound to mention that Terrence McNally has won four Tony Awards and received a Pulitzer Prize, two Guggenheim fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, the Lucille Lortel Award, the Hull-Warriner Award, and a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And he is considered, according to many, one of the leading American dramatists still writing today.
Nonetheless, I think the script stinks. I'm sure it is possible to name plays or movies where inconceivably stupid characters deal with thoroughly implausible situations and yet somehow create a world we are happy to live in for a while. This ain't one of them. At least, not for me.
I suppose "stupid" is the wrong word. Or at least, easily misunderstood. I don't mean the characters are vividly drawn individuals who don't think clearly. That can be wonderful, and anyone can cite a list of favorites. I mean, the way these characters react is stupid. It doesn't make sense.
To take a tiny example once again, Piazza's character arrives in a dumb-looking wig, mustache and dark glasses at the gay bathhouse, where he hopes to hide out. (For how long? Why not just hop a plane back to Cleveland where he lives?) Trying to convince the manager that he is a safe client, he removes the disguise piece by piece. That would inspire confidence, wouldn't it? And then he adds that his brother-in-law is a gangster, trying to kill him. Great, come right in. Clearly, we are in "let's do all kinds of stuff to make the audience laugh" land. A perilous destination.
Director Ricky Graham keeps things moving along at a brisk pace and manages to get considerable fun from the hokum. Bill Walker's set is good, as are Linda Fried's costumes -- especially Googie's snappy get-ups.
Well, to each his own. After all, the show was a hit in 1976. If you like knockabout comedy and the sort of antics that generally get included under the very wide and forgiving rubric of farce, The Ritz may be your thing.
- Michael Salinas, Lara Grice and Patrick Mendelson sing the bathhouse blues in Le Petit's current presentation of The Ritz.