There’s a line early on in Terrence McNally’s 1975 bathhouse play The Ritz that breaks my heart. A character named Proclo, who’s cluelessly chosen a gay sex club to hide out from a mob hit, asks for slippers—he doesn’t want to get athlete’s foot. “You’ll be lucky if that’s all you catch,” the towel boy deadpans. The joke is still funny, but it has a resonance that McNally couldn’t have imagined when he wrote it.
The virus is 26 years old. And the bathhouses? After the ’80s, when bathhouse seemed synonymous with death wish, the establishments made a slow, quiet return. But times have changed. In the ’70s you might have gotten a floor show with the price of admission; today, you can expect condoms and counseling.
The Ritz is coming back too: Boldface director Joe Mantello is reviving McNally’s farce at the Roundabout Theatre on Broadway, with Rosie Perez starring as Googie Gomez, the play’s shower-side chanteuse. And by sheer coincidence, yours truly, POZ’s intrepid copy editor, has landed a tiny role. It’s my Broadway debut and I signed a nudity clause. I quit acting in 1994 when I tested positive and wandered about in a haze for the next six years. It dawned on me in 2000 that I was still alive—so I began taking some steps back toward living a full life. Today I’m working, writing musicals, taking photos and acting again.
It’s ironic that I’m making my Broadway debut in a play about a sex club. My own bathhouse experiences were all post-AIDS and, regrettably, lacked the style or hilarity of The Ritz. The place I used to frequent in Chelsea was just a dark maze. We’d don our towels and circle each other endlessly—like pilgrims in Mecca—and rarely connect. The friendly, liberated, easy love of sex in the play was nowhere to be found in the ’90s. It was hard to love sex in the age of AIDS.
I asked Perez, an outspoken voice for AIDS awareness, how it felt to visit the play’s pre-HIV world. “It’s going to be a challenge,” she told me. “ [Back then] sex was free, sex was reckless and sex was fun. There was no question of safe sex. I remember the nightclub scene in the mid-’80s where AIDS was not as prevalent and the party was different.” I wondered how Googie would have responded to HIV. “With love and compassion,” Perez said. “Googie has a pure heart and loves everyone, despite her vainness and outrageous costumes. That is why all the boys at the bathhouse love her!”
Bill Stackhouse, PhD, director of the Institute for Gay Men’s Health at GMHC in NYC, who came out in 1974, has spent a lot of time in bathhouses. “I’ve been around,” he says. At the baths, institute volunteers offer info about HIV prevention, testing and treatment, drugs such as crystal meth, and STIs like syphilis. Contemplating the return of The Ritz, Stackhouse believes that the initial decline of the clubs has more to do with gay liberation. “Bars were surreptitious in those days.” Whereas bathhouses had “cookouts, volleyball, pools, headliners like Bette Midler.” Now that every large city has an LGBT center, and people have an “openness to being out and about and social, the baths have a strictly sexual focus,” he says.
Meanwhile, Internet hookup sites, which offer standardized, ordered-in sex, keep many gay men shut away in their homes. The baths do have a stigma of being unhygienic, and Stackhouse believes there is some truth in the perception. But the Internet and cities’ Kafkaesque health codes (actual sex is forbidden in New York sex venues) are driving the traffic “to even less hygienic sex-party settings,” he says.
As for The Ritz, Stackhouse is delighted to see it return. “I am absolutely a fan. It’s such a good one. Such a cute premise.” Healthy sex, no stigma—that is a cute premise. (And did I mention I signed a nudity clause?)