New Theatre’s current play, The Ritz, coincides perfectly with the Mardi Gras season – a fresh and bitingly funny play about a straight person walking into a gay bath house. The premise provides its most hilarious moments, where its culmination of absurd situations proves both amusing and outrageously entertaining.
The play opens with Old Man Vespucci on his deathbed, as his children and a priest surround him. His final words, ‘Get Proclo’, set the foundations for a piece about family dynamics, incorporated into a detective mystery located in the last place son-in-law, Gaeatno Proclo (Les Asmussen), would be expected to be found. Proclo’s absolute blindness to the gay bath scene of The Ritz sees him arrive at the ‘hotel’, supplying much of the first act’s ironic comedy. He believes The Ritz is a comfortable seclusion from the dramas of his wife’s family, but instead it provides commotion and a riotous spectacle.
Characters in The Ritz are undoubtedly the highlights of this play, from Chris (Samuel Christopher), a stereotype nitrate-sniffing queen, to Googie Gomez (Meagan Caratti), a wannabe Broadway star stuck in amateur show-nights, the play both seeks to conform to and subvert gay assumptions in a deeply funny manner. The automatic expectation for a woman in The Ritz to be a ‘drag queen’, and a man with a high-pitched voice to be homosexual (Michael Brick played by William Koutsoukis), are instead shattered, playing upon audience presumptions with tongue-in-cheek delight. In fact, The Ritz’s strength lies in its writing and character actors (despite the occasional accent falter) – playwright’s McNally’s championing of gay freedom gives his actors the space to breathe and the play openly presents itself as a fun time.
The set design by Tom Bannerman is an appropriately smart choice for the play; its simplicity of pillars creates avenues for spaces to become tiny rooms of The Ritz, and to widen up into a larger area for the surprise musical performances. The lighting design by Louise Mason assists this set design immensely, adjusting the size of the space accordingly with the play’s shifting landscape. It ends up making the space feel either claustrophobic (to reflect the tight spaces of the bath), but also surprisingly large, where Caratti’s performance as Googie Gomez stuns in both her exaggerated performance and largely comical cabaret-style singing.
However, where David Marshall-Martin’s direction falters is when the play tries to become slightly more poignant in contrast to its usual absurd situations. Its desire to emphasise the way straight people will never understand gay people – no matter what – feels somewhat contrived, and never interweaves throughout the rest of the play enough to have further resonance. Similarly, its efforts to interrogate the seriousness of family ties is less engaging than the dynamic energy that the play reaches when all its main characters interact hilariously in the same space.
But while The Ritz suffers from these minor problems, its outrageously funny scenarios make it entertaining enough to render it an enjoyable night out. Both the impressive ensemble work and progressive messages are admirably great, and it’s certainly a hoot at the theatre.
THE RITZ runs until Saturday March 5
PERFORMANCES: Tuesday – Saturday 7:30pm, Sunday 5pm, Final performance: Saturday 5 March 2pm
TICKET PRICES: $17 – $32
VENUE: New Theatre, 542 King Street Newtown
BOOKINGS: NEWTHEATRE.ORG.AU (no booking fee)