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A CHANGE IN SEASON

Exactly 30 years ago, yours truly was having one of the best times of his life. Along with a wonderful group of actors,directors, techies and jacks of all trades, I was part of a repertory theater company in the historic city of Paterson, NJ. Get the snickers out of the way now, because we had what most actors would kill for these days-our own company, funded by the city, with complete autonomy. We chose the plays we wanted to do, we had open castings, we built the sets,designed the lighting,sold the refreshments…and we did it really well.

As an actor, I often performed on weekends while rehearsing the next production during the week. We did this until the awful day the city of Paterson decided we weren’t exactly representative of the population of Paterson as a whole and were replaced by an inner city, all-minority, dance troupe. But while the inmates were running the asylum, we frequently sold out the house and had what any performer could covet.Stunning fun. One of the best things we ever put on back then was a terrific, crowd pleasing farce that included sight gags, mistaken identities, slamming doors, scantily clad performers,singing,dancing and sheer hilarity. The play was Terrence McNally’s “The Ritz”. And I was reminded of those heady times recently, because after 32 years, “The Ritz” is back on Broadway, at Studio 54, in a new production directed by Joe Mantello and starring Kevin Chamberlin and Rosie Perez. And it remains as funny as I remember it being back then.

For those who don’t know the piece, it’s the simple story of a garbageman from Cleveland whose brother-in-law puts a hit on him at a funeral. Not knowing NYC, he asks a cabbie to bring him to the one place no one would think of looking for him. He winds up hiding out in a gay bathhouse, populated by chubby chasers, go go boys, a Puerto Rican chanteuse named Googie Gomez, and an assortment of crazies. Once the ball starts rolling, the gags start piling up one after another until you’re laughing so hard you’re crying. What was true 32 years ago on Broadway and 30 years ago in Paterson, is still true today. If it’s done well, this show can be the funniest two hours you’re likely to sit through. And this production is done very well indeed.

First off, there’s Kevin Chamberlin,who was on Broadway last year in “Chicago” and before that, played Horton the Elephant in “Seussical”. He is a riot as our hero, the sanitation engineer. His comic timing is priceless. His Andrews Sisters number, late in the second act, is worth the price of admission alone. He is aided and abetted by Brooks Ashmanskas as Chris, the bathhouse’s resident slut. It’s a role F. Murray Abraham played in the original.(It’s also the role I assumed during rehearsals back then in Paterson. Did I mention I directed it as well? No?).Kevin and Brooks are terrific together throughout the show, but especially in the second half. And then there’s Ms. Perez. Rita Moreno won a Tony Award as Googie in the original production, and as far as I’m concerned, she will always own the role. It’s a legendary performance, so it was pretty brave of Perez to even attempt it. But she nails it. The laughs are all there, she knows how to mine them, and her nightclub act at the end of Act One is side-splitting. (Da son will be out, manyana, bit chor buttum dollar that manyana….). Director Joe Mantello has done an amazing job getting this all to work with the split-second timing it requires and visually, his three level set populated by some very choice examples of Broadway’s finest eye candy is a joy to behold.

Much has indeed changed in the last 32 years, I’ll admit, especially in terms of the permissiveness and the sexual freedom this show celebrated back them. All comic references to disease, for instance, are now gone from the text. What was funny about picking up a germ back then, sadly, no longer holds true. It IS a period piece and it remains firmly set in the mid 70’s, before the arrival of the plague that took and continues to take so many lives. So it does function on that nostalgic level as well. And watching this revival really hit me hard on several fronts. But it brought back so many wonderful memories, both of the original and of the production I was proud to be part of back in 1977. It’s good to know it’s still one beautifully funny show, whether it’s bringing back a time that was filled with promise and optimism, or whether it’s providing the distinct pleasure of experiencing it for the first time. It runs through early December. So go already.

And while the plays they’re appearing in may not be Pulitzer Prize-worthy, I want to mention some actors and actresses appearing on stage in NYC right now who really deserve to be seen because they’re at the top of their game. F. Murray Abraham(32 years after “The Ritz”, still going strong, if not better than ever) is currently appearing in Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Theresa Rebeck’s “Mauritius”, and he is mesmerizing. Playing the villain, as he’s been doing more and more recently, he is impossible to forget in this subtle thriller. He is creepy, he is suave, he is the consummate actor. Kristen Johnston, appearing in “Scarcity” at The Atlantic Theater, gives the performance of her career as the trailer trash mother of two trapped in her Massachusetts town. This one has already been extended. Guy Boyd is playing a wrestler on the eve of his final match in Adam Rapp’s “American Sligo” at the Rattlestick. It’s a funny, heartening performance. In the same play, actor Paul Sparks also rattles a few cages as the wrestler’s abusive, coke-snorting son. And I must finish by extolling the virtues of the entire cast of the beautiful, just-shuttered play, “100 Saints You Should Know”, which played Playwrights Horizons. The major critics had no idea how to pigeonhole this gorgeous play, and so they dismissed it out of hand. Not one of the critics for NY’s 3 biggest newspapers even got the play. At least none of them seemed to have seen the same play I saw. I’ll just say that Ethan McSweeney’s production, starring Lois Smith,Jalel Moloney, Zoe Kazan,Will Rogers and Jeremy Shamos(his best work ever) closed too soon and will be sorely missed.