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Kevin Chamberlin of ‘The Ritz’ Discusses Beefy, Naked Guys

Photo: Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Roundabout Theater Company

Every New Yorker has secretly wished a grisly — or, at the very least, comically awkward — fate on tourists who stop every ten feet on the sidewalk to take pictures. So, naturally, Vulture is pretty excited about the Broadway revival of The Ritz, the story of a family man from Ohio who accidentally takes refuge in a gay bathhouse circa 1970 while on the run from his homicidal brother-in-law. Kevin Chamberlin spoke with Vulture about his starring role as bumbling Guitano Proclo, in the hilarious play that combines two very confused Italians, one girlie-voiced detective, one Rosie Perez (as a talentless lounge singer), and so many rippling, waxed man-chests that we lost count.

So Roundabout is producing this revival?
This play would never be produced by a for-profit enterprise; you can’t do a nonmusical play on Broadway with that many people and figure you’re going to make money. Too many salaries to pay. But right now it’s selling through December 9, and I think it’ll sell through December 23. We have a very large gay audience, which is funny, because some female friends of mine went to a preview and were exclaiming, “There was no line to the bathroom at intermission! It was all on the men’s side.”

That’s believable. The play is so flamboyant.
Someone actually walked out last night and had a row with the director. She was like, “I can’t believe the Roundabout is putting on such flagrantly gay plays!” I mean, look at the poster, for God’s sake! And really, it’s a 35-year-old play. There’s nothing offensive — it just happens to take place in a gay bathhouse. This is pre-AIDS, in the middle of the sexual revolution. [Playwright] Terrence McNally was saying that it was an amazing, celebratory time of sexual freedom and also freedom for gay men. Where else could you go to have sex and watch Bette Midler sing at the same time?

Was it weird working onstage with a bunch of beefy, near-naked guys?
[Laughs.] Well, the first day when everyone started, there was one actor who said, “You know what, I gotta get over my self-consciousness.” So he just stripped down and then wrapped a towel around him, and everyone else just followed suit. I don’t even notice it anymore.

The play is definitely kind of a love letter to so many other musicals, like when Rosie’s lounge-singing character mangles all these famous numbers from other shows.
There’s a lot of insider jokes. I’ve had some friends come who weren’t versed in musical theater, and afterwards they’re like, “I didn’t get what was so bad about the medley!” It’s such a wonderful take off on all bad medleys ever written. It really is a love letter to that time, and there’s a lot of references that I had to look up. Like when Chris comes onstage and says, “We’ve entered Carmine in a Zinka Milanov look-alike competition!” — I had to look that one up. And there was a reference to Mark Spitz, who was an Olympic swimmer who won the gold medal in 1972, and all gay men had a poster of Mark Spitz back then. He was the sex symbol. You look at that poster now and you’re like “Yyyeeech.”

But it’s still accessible to current audiences, which is important.
You have to realize that in 1974 when people came to see this, they didn’t know anything about gay subculture. And it was shocking and unfamiliar, but also, people were rolling in the aisles. It was funny then, too. You never see any nudity — well, you see some butt, but that’s nothing nowadays. You never see two men kissing. That’s why I was so surprised that that woman stormed out. People were dying last night, even the old ladies! At the matinee, when the curtain rises and all those men walk out in their towels, those ladies are screaming like they’re at a Chippendales show.

There’s one scene where Rosie Perez’s character proves to you that she’s a bona fide woman and not a drag queen. Is it weird having to grope someone you work with every day?
The first time it is, oh yeah. But then she grabs my balls right after that, so we’re even.

One last technical question: how exactly do those teeny towels stay on? Glue? Magic?
[Laughs.] A lot of them are just tied or safety-pinned. But you’ve got to have a butt to hold those things up. —Annsley Chapman