AISLE SAY New York

 

 

THE RITZ
by Terrence McNally
Directed by Joe Mantello

Starring Kevin Chamberlin, Rosie Perez, Brooks Asmanskas
A Production of the Roundabout Theatre Company
at Studio 54

and

THE BEEBO BRINKER CHRONICLES

by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman
Based on the Beebo Brinker novels by Ann Bannon
Directed by Leigh Silverman
The Fourth Street Theatre / 83 East Fourth Street
www.beebobeinker.com

Reviewed by David Spencer

 

 

In terms of thematic connection, it never even occurred to me what I had scheduled for myself on one of my rare double-header (matinee and evening) Saturdays, but as soon as I embarked upon my first destination, Studio 54, to see the Roundabout's revival of Terrence McNally's farce The Ritz, I realized that what awaited me later, The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, at the Fourth Street Theatre (the smaller space of The New York Theatre Workshop), was the perfect companion piece.

 

     For you see, The Ritz is an all-out, door-slammer farce about a middle-aged, fat, bald and very straight man Gaetano (“Guy”) Proclo (Kevin Chamberlin), running from his homicide-minded brother-in-law (Lenny Venito), and hiding out in a gay bath house in NYC. This is the kind of establishment one hears very little about anymore because they only thrived during the pre-AIDS era in which The Ritz is set. With its calamitous collision of straight and gay and all the various gay types (the extravagant extrovert [Brooks Ashmanskas], the chubby chaser [Patrick Kerr], the two bookend-like attendants [Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and David Turner]), the mid-70s play was, quite intentionally, on McNally's part, a celebration of newfound liberation in the gay community, tied into a greater mainstream acceptance of gays in general, not to mention an increasingly mainstream acceptance of many formerly marginalized or persecuted groups as well. For many years after the play's debut (32 years ago, a number which seems astonishing, given how freshly preserved that era is in memory, thanks as much to pervasive electronic media as personal nostalgia) The Ritz fell out of favor; it seemed in poor taste to revive it, given the frightening consequences of “advocating” the social atmosphere it reveled in. But now that AIDS has become somewhat containable, the Roundabout took the gamble that the play could be viewed as a look back at a more innocent time.

 

     As to The Beebo Brinker Chronicles...well, the literary properties tied to this play are perhaps less well-known than McNally’s gay-themed plays in mainstream circles, but they mark as significant a celebration. And one that emerged—successfully at that—nearly two full decades before The Ritz. To understand that, you have to understand the significance of novelist Ann Bannon, the pseudonymous by-line of Ann Weldy. In the late 50s and early 60s, she wrote a series of novels that examined the contemporary lives of lesbians: the closeted ones, the out ones, the ones making the decision to leave marriages and claim their homosexuality, the ones who arranged partnerships of convenience with gay men, the better to raise families in mainstream society...and she did this without the pall of shame or the cynicism of cheap-thrill titillation. (Though Ms. Bannon has admitted that, trapped in an unsatisfying marriage, as she was at the time she wrote the books, she projected a good deal of fantasy and yearning into them.) Oh, indeed, in style and narrative energy they certainly held their own as paperback originals (there they were on the racks with the same suggestive covers as the Gold Medal noir thrillers with which they shared the imprint, and among the bestselling books in the line), but Bannon's were nonetheless the first novels that validated both the secret and not-so-secret lesbian communities; indeed, for some women, these were the books that quite literally gave them permission to feel good about themselves. And Beebo Brinker, a tough, butch lesbian with a more vulnerable nature than she cares to put on display, is a character who appears in all the books.

 

     Looking at the two shows side by side:

 

     The Ritz now is funnier and savvier than when it debuted in 1975. No, it hasn't become an appreciably better piece of material—I thought then, and think now, that it's a very expert bit of comedy writing without being outstanding as such (save for the new thematic ground it was breaking)—but because it's in better directoral hands, it’s frothier. The original production directed by the late Robert Drivas (himself a tragic, early AIDS death and a perfectly brilliant actor on both stage and screen) is one I remember as a little forced, a little pushy. The Ritz is so over-the-top as it is, it doesn't really need help being outrageous—what it needs are the things that keep it afloat (timing) and keep you invested (humanism). Happily, it has those things aplenty under the direction of Joe Mantello, with performances to match. Citing just a few: Mr. Chamberlin's Guy is an adorably confused teddy bear. Brooks Ashmanskas' Chris—who becomes the hero's best friend and accomplice when the chips are down—is very possibly a star-making turn, as the actor channels all the fussy, faaabulous, frolicky and iconic energies of forbears like Paul Lynde, Alan Seus and Charles Nelson Reilly, but delivers them with a manic buoyancy all his own. And then, of course, there's Rosie Perez as Googie Gomez, the thick-accented Hispanic chanteuse who is so extravagantly untalented that her act (a medley of pop and show tunes) is a virtual masterpiece of bad intonation and self-delusion. As I say, for me personally, The Ritz is a good, solid farce rather than a great one; but the audience roars through it all, in the end even warmly, as the gay and straight worlds each learn from one another, as personified by Guy and Chris finding their common ground.

 

     Beebo Brinker provides a subtler, but no less difficult, balancing act of elements. Remember, Ms. Bannon's books were a product of their era and paperback originals besides. A certain amount of sensationalistic discovery came with the territory (the same kind that informs issue-driven TV and movies of the era as well, where any victory by a Rod Serling [Requiem for a Heavyweight] or a Paddy Chayefsky [Marty] or an Abby Mann [Judgment at Nuremberg] was accompanied by the sound of a taboo breaking). Director Leigh Silverman has opted for a playing style commensurate with melodrama of the period—pitched slightly higher than realism, the dialogue paced slightly faster than normal speech—mixed in with a little old-fashioned soap opera sensibility.

 

     Given this choice, there are two usual ways in which she might have skewed the production: toward parody or toward pastiche (by which I mean dedicated, pointed emulation). But somehow, interestingly, Ms. Silverman has managed both, without the one devaluing the other, sometimes alternately, at times simultaneously. For the most part she allows the somewhat more innocent melodrama to speak for itself, so that we always take the characters, and their plight, seriously. Although every now and again, Ms. Silverman kicks things into an even higher gear still, by way of winking at the audience that she knows that we know how overblown certain expressed sentiments are. (The afoementioned melodrama includes the young lesbian new to NY [Autumn Dornfeld], looking for love with straight women who remind her of her early one true love—the love who left her to get married; and that one true love [Marin Ireland], who, unbeknownst to her former lover, is obsessing just as much about what she lost, and looking to get out of a marriage for which she holds no passion.)

 

     For my money, I wonder—merely wonder, mind—if the delivery might all have been taken down a notch. Even in the scenes where, no pun intended, the drama is played straight. It seems to me that the script by Kate Moira Ryan and Linda S. Chapman (which adapts key threads of three Bannon novels—I Am a Woman, Woman in the Shadows, Journey to a Woman—into a brisk, intermissionless 90 minutes) doesn't really need the nod of commentary or even a playing style that's quite such a self-aware homage, because the tone and tenor of the period need no goosing to emerge from the text in relief. One might argue that a latter-day script in this mold demands that a knowing perspective be present on the surface, but I’m not so sure. It might risk some unintentional laughter to let the text be that exposed, but given the reaction of the audience I attended with, I think the characters and story are strong enough that such laughter could only be affectionate and understanding.

 

     Indeed, though, even with things played hotter, the cast of six—also including downtown gay-theatre mainstay David Greenspan as a middle aged bachelor tired of "the lifestyle" and looking to settle down and raise a family; Bill Dawes and Carolyn Baeumler as various types, straight and gay; and of course Anna Foss Wilson as the eponymous Beebo—assay it all with sensitivity, real-stakes sincerity and Swiss-watch precision. (It's interesting to note, too, that Ms. Wilson is somewhat more petite and compact than the formidable six-foot tall butch powerhouse described in the novels, described onstage too in transitional narrative lifted from Ms. Bannon's prose; but the play doesn't change its description to suit the actress; rather the production lets her create her own bigness through performance, in the kind of magical collusion between actor and audience that can only happen in the theatre.)

 

     The current off-off Broadway run sold out even before opening. That's a testament to Ms. Bannon. There is now talk of a much deserved transfer to an open-ended off-Broadway run. And that's a testament to the production. And to a segment of the audience that has needed to claim their own mainstream territory for a long time...

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