“Should I wear that bathrobe for my curtain call?” When Frank Pagliaro ’14 asked this question during the dress rehearsal I attended on the night of Nov. 13 before the show that weekend, I knew I was in for a ride. Indeed, Pagliaro’s cacophonous entrance as a malevolent Italian patriarch provided a mourning tableau that enlivened the audience and hinted at the size and comedic range of the cast. As the light faded on Pagliaro’s grizzled jowls and wailing family, Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” swept us into the The Ritz, set in a seedily glamorous gay bathhouse in New York.
The set, beautifully designed by Visiting Lecturer in Theatre Marion Williams, enabled The Ritz’s potential for movement with spiraling staircases and prominent red doors. As director David Eppel, chair and professor of theatre, told me before the show, “A good farce is about doors,” and the show did not disappoint. Indeed, these doors allowed for an ongoing sense of prowling and entering. The steam room, the performance’s centerpiece, acted as a twisted cousin of Mary Poppins’ bag, swallowing and disgorging any number of characters while echoing with the muted cries of those discovering, for the first time, the steamy trysts that occurred within.
The relative obscurity of the play’s environment, however, translated to a longer warm-up for the crowd; Pagliaro’s climactic death directly preceded a less energetic series of transactional and expositional entrances as the Ritz’s receptionist checked in the night’s patrons. The dynamic entrance of Marina Bousa ’13 as suspected drag queen Googie Gomez received fewer laughs than I expected, perhaps because the audience was still wrapping its ears around the passionate accented phrases exploding out of her petite frame. By the time Gaetano Proclo, played by Chris Gay ’13, stumbled through the beaded doorway, however, the audience was ready to sympathize with his flustered earnestness, obvious discomfort and moments of joyous relief whenever he discovered a semblance of normalcy in his new environment. Alex Foucault ’15 also grounded the audience with glimpses of life outside of its embrace as Chris, Proclo’s mother hen in The Ritz. While the Stonewall riots in New York had ushered in a new era of openness, Chris reflected that straight men were still united by their hatred for gays. This undercurrent was brought to the fore when he shouted, “You can die with your secret!” to a snobby resident; in this moment, the audience was faced, momentarily, with a chilling premonition of the AIDS epidemic that would decimate the community.
These more serious moments, however, were swiftly bypassed as we witnessed the exaggerated physicality and vocal manipulation that animated the show. Bousa’s guttural, glittery nightclub act was one of the highlights of the night, while Jimmy Grzelak ’13 wowed and irritated the audience in his performance as Michael Brick, a Clusoe-esque private eye with a gratingly high voice, surprisingly large bicep and perfectly-placed operatic interruption. Stephen Simalchik ’13, meanwhile, kept the audience on edge with Carmine Vespucci’s pelvic-focused physicality and rabidly homophobic ravings, bringing to life Chris’s worst Catholic nightmare. Throughout all of these performances, the vocal and physical coaching done by artist Shaun Bengson ’05 and Abigail Bengson ’05 was apparent, as cast members blossomed in operatic solos and poignant monologues.
Jonny Gonzalez ’15, meanwhile, was both hilarious and terrifying to witness as chubby chaser Claude Perkins. His diminutive stature enhanced the comedy in a role that, to modern audiences, contained elements of a darker proclivity. The musical flourishes of his chubby-love inspired laughs, but there were also audible “No!”s as he showed up at Proclo’s door again and again, baiting him with food or threatening to break his kneecaps. The play, ever a farce, snapped him out of his role as a hunter as soon as Proclo recognized him from the army, but it was difficult to reconcile this new face, under which he worked to protect Proclo through their hilarious talent show act as the Andrews Sisters, with the character who had physically forced larger men into his bed.
My favorite surprise of the night, apart from the appearance of Class of 1956 Professor of American Civilization Mark Reinhardt in a towel, was the laconic drawling of “That’s Amore” by Qadir Forbes ’15. Replete with strategically placed balloons that were sensually popped one by one throughout the song, it perfectly embodied the spirit of the Ritz; this was a place where any man could explore his inner diva and where moments of rapture and delight came from the most unexpected sources. Proclo ultimately attained the same transcendence in defeating Carmine, and the audience was gladdened to see Gay snap from Charlie Brown to a bolder character, slipping into the protective skin of his new environment and gaining courage from its spirit.
Ultimately, I was delighted from the outset with the comedic and hair-growing potential of the cast. It was clear to me that they did an excellent job in bringing to life an era and culture of which many of us at the College were unaware. Some of the jokes, to be sure, sailed over the heads of the college audience, but the overall emotional tenor of The Ritz enchanted, terrified and seduced its viewers in a celebration of guts, guffaws and gay glamour.