Chubby chasers, men in drag, men in towels, men out of towels and other assorted denizens of the bathhouse world will fill the small stage in Off the Wall Theatre’s production of “The Ritz” this summer. Out playwright Terrence McNally’s 1975 comedic collision of gangster spoof and bedroom (OK, bathhouse) farce well stands the test of time and is perfect summer fare, according to Dale Gutzman, the theater’s famously innovative artistic director.
“McNally writes about the human condition, justice, love and the very meanings of life,” Gutzman says about the author of “Corpus Christi” and other gay-themed plays. “He does this often with comedy, but his messages are no less important just because the audience is rocked with laughter. It’s naughty but nice, if you know what I mean.”
The story is as simple as the action is manic. Gaetano Proclo (Lawrence Lukasavage) is on the run from his Mafia-linked brother-in-law Carmine Vespucci (James Feeley). He chooses to hide out at The Ritz, thinking it’s a swank New York hotel rather than a rundown gay bathhouse. The situation comedy that follows includes all the expected antics, but they take on increasingly bizarre twists and turns.
Inspiration for The Ritz – the bathhouse, not the play – came from New York’s Continental Baths, the gay institution that opened in 1968 in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel and was touted as reminiscent of “the glory of ancient Rome.” In addition to the baths themselves, the original facility included sauna rooms, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a disco ballroom and a cabaret lounge. Alarms rang if the police were on the way, and there was K-Y jelly in the vending machine.
The Continental Baths’ best known feature was its entertainment, which in its time included Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sarah Vaughn, Tiny Tim, Patti Page, Cab Calloway and others. But its most famous performer may have been a very young Bette Midler, often accompanied on piano by an equally young Barry Manilow, who often played wrapped in just a towel. Midler picked up the nickname “Bathhouse Betty” at the Continental, and her career was born.
The Continental’s entertainment became so popular that straight audiences began showing up in such numbers that the gay clientele felt disenfranchised. It was as if they’d been demoted to just part of the ambience, and they stopped coming.
The baths closed in 1974, but there was a resurrection of the property in 1977 as Plato’s Retreat, a heterosexual swinger’s club that was shut down by the City of New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
“The Ritz” – the play, not the bathhouse – also has its share of entertainers, including Googie Gomez (Kristin Pagankopf), a would-be song- bird with a voice “like nails on a blackboard,” Gutzman says. Rita Moreno won a 1975 Tony Award for her performance as Gomez on Broadway, a role she reprised in the 1976 film version by director Richard Lester, which also starred Jerry Stiller, Kaye Ballard and F. Murray Abraham.
In addition to the character of Gomez, Off the Wall’s version includes Milwaukee drag performers Miss Karen Valentine and Miss Maple Veneer.
“I picked them because they are wonderfully comedic and their crazy style suits the show,” Gutzman says. “The three leads do a drag rendition of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” that just gets wilder and wilder.”
The theater’s small stage will be transformed into a bathhouse, with individual rooms made out of two-by-four lumber with doors that slam. But there are no walls, so the audience can see what’s going on at all times in all rooms.
“And, yes, we have a steam room with bursts of steam and other things coming out,” Gutzman says. “It figures in the plot.”
“The Ritz” isn’t the only McNally or gay-themed play Off the Wall is doing in the near future. The 2012 season will end in May with McNally’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” the new season launches in September with “A Man Like Hong Kong,” an original espionage thriller written by Gutzman that includes gay themes.
“Doing a gay show for its own sake is never a reason,” Gutzman says. “To do a show whose challenges intrigue me is, and if that show has a gay theme, then that’s fine.” While Gutzman hopes Milwaukee’s gay audiences will show up, he’s shooting for a much larger audience with “The Ritz.”
“ ‘The Ritz’ is bring-the-whole-family fare,” he says. “Well, bring the whole family if it is a very, very liberal family.”