Friday, October 19, 2007

Through a glass pinkly

The vagaries of the calendar mean that I recently saw two plays set in the gay and lesbian past: the new Beebo Brinker Chronicles, based on Ann Bannon's 50s pulp novels, and a revival of Terrence McNally's 1975 bathhouse-set farce The Ritz.

First, let's point out that the lesbian-themed production is Off-Off, in a tiny theater with general admission, very basic sets and a cast of six. The gay-themed show is at the refurbished Studio 54 with Broadway-level ticket prices, an opulent multilevel set and a cast of 23; the rights for the songs they use alone must have been half the Beebo budget.

An interesting parallel between the shows is brought on by the difficulty to handle the pull between two conflicting directions. A big element in The Ritz is the appeal of a performer so bad, she's—maybe not good, but compulsively watchable; Rosie Perez plays her and she does work her butt off, but she lacks that ineffable spark that'd make her magnetic (plus her diction is so muddled that she's often hard to understand). The Beebo creative team, meanwhile, had to make a decision about going for camp or for earnest drama. The tension between the two actually makes for interesting theater because you can almost physically feel the effort of the creative team as it tried to inject humor while not falling into irony and distance. There, the actors, especially the stunning Marin Ireland and David Greenspan, walk that fine line with essential grace.

Finally, the issue of sexuality is very present in both shows. The Ritz, alas, feels completely neutered. Joe Mantello's direction is, er, flaccid—not good when the action relies on slammed doors, chases and mistaken identities, and not good when the background is a place dedicated to 24/7 sex. This bathhouse isn't a place where men go to have sex with each other: It looks and feels like a gym—though I'm sure there's worse happening in the steam room of the Chelsea branch of New York Sports Club than in Mantello's baths—and the gaze is narcissistically turned toward the self rather than toward others. Beebo feels more about desire than raw sexuality, which I enjoyed because it's a tricky thing to represent onstage. Once again, the cast pulls it off beautifully, and watching it in action more than made up in the oft-confused chronological structure of the show.

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