It is no surprise that Harvey Fierstein is the one who authored “Casa Valentina,” a remarkably well-acted if under-cooked play about a 1960’s Catskills resort for heterosexual men who liked to wear dresses. In his Broadway debut 32 years ago, Fierstein wrote and starred in “Torch Song Trilogy,” portraying a drag queen longing for the same three things everybody in New York wants – an affordable apartment, a job that’s bearable, and somebody to share it all with – as well as an implicit desire to be accepted as is. Since then, Fierstein has helped turn his fascination with cross-dressers into something of an industry-wide trend – writing the book for the musicals “La Cage Aux Folles” and “Kinky Boots,” and playing Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray.” He even portrayed Robin Williams’ brother, a makeup artist who transforms Williams into the title character of the film “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Most of his dress-wearing characters seem to have a different primary “want” than the original Arnold Beckoff in “Torch Song Trilogy” – above all, they want to entertain. But now, with his first non-musical Broadway play in three decades, Fierstein returns admirably to his first impulse – to acquaint theatergoers with precisely observed characters from a little-known world.
It is 1962, and a married couple run the Chevalier d’Eon Resort in the Catskills. George is portrayed by Patrick Page, the best thing about both Spider-Man and A Time To Kill , and his wife Rita is played by Mare Winningham, the former brat pack movie idol who has lately made a splash on the New York stage, in such works as Tribes, After The Revolution and Picnic. When George is dressed as a woman, her name becomes Valentina. One by one we meet their six guests, all married men here by themselves to relax as women for the weekend. Jonathon (Gabriel Ebert, who won a Tony playing Mr. Wormwood in Matilda) is a newbie. Most of the others are regulars. Tom McGowan plays short, stout Bessie, an Army Sergeant with three grown children who spouts Oscar Wilde and otherwise cracks wise. The handsome Nick Westrate portrays the beautiful Gloria. The accomplished veteran actors Reed Birney, John Cullum and Larry Pine each play distinctive and very different characters. The greatest strength of “Casa Valentina” is how it defies the long tradition of cross-dressing as comic shtick and implicitly asks us to respect these characters – some of whom, let’s face it, appear awkward and faintly ludicrous in costume designer Rita Ryack’s dresses. It is a testament to Fierstein’s writing, Joe Mantello’s direction and above all the acting by this terrific cast that we have no problem treating them seriously.
The play is engaging when we get glimpses into the lives of each man through their reminiscing and simply by seeing them changing from their male to their female identities. Jonathon explains how “Miranda” first emerged in his life when he was a young child, and how, on his wedding night, he put on his bride’s wedding dress. His wife caught him, and laughed, thinking he had done it as a joke, and grateful that her new husband finally showed that he had a sense of humor. Jonathon has not put on women’s clothes in front of her again, waiting until she is out of the house, and dressing only as Miranda in the windowless basement…until this weekend. The other guests offer makeup and other tips to Jonathon to turn him into Miranda
But the playwright clearly figured that such scenes were not enough for a full-length drama, and so injects some conflict…a plot…some melodrama.
The resort is going bankrupt, and Valentina hopes to have it rescued by Charlotte (Birney), who is the editor of a nation-wide movement magazine, with a readership of heterosexual cross-dressers who might flock to the resort upon Charlotte’s endorsement. Charlotte is very taken with her own activism — “Not to toot my own horn, but there’s a Christ-like element to my journey.” This is just an early clue of what eventually becomes unavoidably clear: Charlotte is the villain. (Her resemblance to the cigarette-smoking Bette Davis of the later melodramas may not be coincidental.)
Charlotte insists that the members of this new East Coast chapter of her organization, The Sorority, publicly reveal their identities, and that they sign an affidavit affirming that they are not homosexual: “Our goal is to see the laws against cross dressing expunged for once and for all. As long as transvestite is synonymous with homosexual it will never happen. No decent society will ever welcome us.”
What ensues is a debate. The best line in the debate (albeit stacked), again from Charlotte: “Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking.”
Theoretically such a discussion should be intriguing, but it goes on way too long; it’s as if the play had been hijacked for an organizational meeting or a hearing. (Even Rita comments: “Are we running a resort or Congress?”)
Meanwhile, George/Valentina is also in legal trouble; a postal inspector has interrogated him about an envelope mailed to him full of cross-dressing, homosexual pornographic images – images meant for somebody else at the resort, although it is not clear who…initially. Charlotte’s villainy comes to full flower in the resolution of this melodrama, complete with blackmail, violence, emotional confrontation… .the end of Paradise (with many unsubtle allusions to the Garden of Eden.)
Notes in the program and at the end of the script by the playwright and the director make clear that “Casa Valentina” is based on an actual bungalow colony (which is now a summer camp for Hasidic families!) and that at least some of the characters were drawn from real people. The Sorority – officially Tri-Ess, the Society for the Second Self – is an actual organization that currently has 30 chapters. We are even offered the beginnings of a glossary: “The gentlemen in our play are not drag queens or female impersonators.” Much of this is interesting; some of it provokes more questions than it answers. None of it guarantees a satisfying work of theater.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York
Written by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Joe Mantello
Set design by Scott Pask, lighting design by Justin Townsend, costume design by Rita Ryack, music and sound design by Fitz Patton, fight direction by Thomas Schall
Cast: Reed Birney, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Emery, Tom McGowan, Patrick Page, Larry Pine, Nick Westrate, Mare Winningham
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes, including an intermission.
Tickets: $67.00 – $125.00
Casa Valentina is set to run through June 15