By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Jul 27, 2012 at 4:36 PM

Every wedding reception seems the same, with getting out on the dance floor a proposition full of reluctance and potential embarrassment.

Finally, after a little beer, two couples get out there, then a few more. And before you know it, the safety of the crowd gets you on the floor and you realize how much fun it is dancing to "Proud Mary" or "Wonderful Tonight."

That's kind of the way it is at "The Ritz," the Terrence McNally comedy that opened Thursday night at Off The Wall Theatre. The play was written almost four decades ago, a time when the straight world was just starting to determine that gay men were sophisticated and funny and worldly.

Back then it was both funny and permissible to tell jokes about fags and about men who were promiscuous and to wonder if straight guys should feel threatened by gay men.

We have moved well beyond those days, thank the Lord, and now the idea of jokes of that kind seem, well, a little dated and a little unsavory. Who today wants to tell a joke about gay guys having an orgy in a private room? That's just not funny anymore.

So when "The Ritz," set in a gay bath house, opens and in the early going a scarf- and pink-bedecked Chris finds out that the son of the bath house manager is getting married and asks, with a leer, "Does he need anyone to practice with?" the temptation is to grit your teeth a little bit.

But before too long people throughout the theater begin to chuckle and then laugh out loud, and before too long it seems like there is permission to laugh like crazy at these 40-year-old jokes. From then on, "The Ritz" is a rollicking good time.

It's probably not great theater, but for a night of both high- and low-brow entertainment it's certainly good for laughs.

"The Ritz" is a classic farce. There is a framework of a story that has a hero in a difficult situation and a bunch of action common to every great farce ever written. There's a dame and a villain or two, lots of doors that open and close, people who go in and out of those doors, a few chases and even a couple of slow down moments to move the plot along. And there's a happy ending.

"The Ritz" is about a man from Cleveland who is trying to hide from his murderous mob-connected brother-in-law. He takes refuge in a gay bathhouse, and of course doesn't have a clue it's a gay bath house. He's under the mistaken impression that The Ritz is, well, The Ritz.

The story is never all that important in a classic farce. But the characterizations are critical. The dialogue has to be crisp and move along like a Sousa march played at twice its normal speed.

This production certainly has some memorable performances that deliver fully fleshed out characters with no hints of falling easily into stereotypes.

Lawrence J. Lukasavage as the hapless Gaetano Proclo is bald, short, fat and perplexed both by his life and by the situation he's in. He pulls sympathy from the audience, which obviously wonders how they would act when caught in the miasma that envelops him.

A trio of absolutely wonderful character actors provides much of the laughter.

Karl Miller, as the foppish swisher who would do anything for love but never seems to be able to hook up, manages to make this a human being with whom we love to laugh. But you also have to think about giving him a shoulder to cry on to help relieve his lonely nights.

Kurtis Witzlsteiner cuts a swath through the bath house looking for a fat man to drag into his bed. "My jelly roll," trips from his lips as he massages shoulders and tries to woo with candy, éclairs and other sweet treats. It's not until he headlines an Andrews Sisters pantomime act that he really seems happy.

And finally, there is Kristin Pagenkopf, whose turn as Googie Gomez makes everybody lean forward to figure out what she's saying because you think it just might be important. She's a Puerto Rican singer – using the word singer loosely – who is just waiting for her big break while singing in the bath house.

But no Bette Midler is Ms. Gomez. She's a lustful dreamer who keeps getting slammed to the ground and keeps getting up, a smile on her face and a Hispanic accent that occasionally defies interpretation.

As she tries to seduce Gaetano she asks him to picture a tropical night with a "bitch." No "bitch" about this, though. She's talking about a beach, hoping that Gaetano will prove to be a producer who can take her to the stars.

The rest of the cast has some good moments, and some that seem to be speed bumps thrown into the middle of the road. But those moments are easily forgotten in the intimate, 50-seat theater under a production that director Dale Gutzman drives like the real pro he is.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.