BWW Reviews: CASA VALENTINA Is What It Is
Last season playwright Harvey Fierstein ruffled the sequins of his Kinky Boots star Billy Porter by stating that he wrote the cross-dressing fellow Porter plays in the musical as straight. Porter insisted that the character is gay.
This will not be an issue with his new one.
Casa Valentina is Fierstein's first non-musical on Broadway in 27 years, and since its two predecessors, Torch Song Trilogy and Safe Sex, were both trios of related one-acts, this is his first full-length play to ever hit the street.
A specialist in the field of cross-dressing, the playwright digs up a fascinating piece of gender-illusion history, exploring a side of transvestitism rarely seen on stage.
Set in a Catskill bungalow colony during the summer of '62, Casa Valentina gets its inspiration from a resort that, in the early 1960s, served as a secret haven for straight men who enjoyed dressing as women. Their reasons for it may have varied, but the opportunity to be themselves among others who shared their passion was a freeing experience.
After a visual prologue depicting shadowy male figures seated before mirrors and transitioning into their other selves, the play commences with Rita (a cheerful and motherly Mare Winningham) preparing for the weekend's guests. Rita met the man she would eventually marry, George (a dapper and plummy Patrick Page), as he was buying a wig to suit his alternate identity as Valentina. For up to thirty weekends a year Valentina and Rita host similarly-minded men, all claiming to be secure in their heterosexuality.
Newcomer Jonathan (Gabriel Ebert) arrives early and his scene with Rita and the wise-cracking, Oscar Wilde-quoting Bessie (a gregarious Tom McGowan) helps provide the exposition. When George enters, the playwright emphasizes the normalcy of his and Rita's marriage, even as he begins dolling up for work.
When they guests all arrive, the first order of business is to help Jonathan, who is looking pretty dowdy in his identity as Miranda, feel more comfortable by teaming up to give her a makeover. Miranda's butterfly emergence is heartwarming, as is the demonstration of community and comradeship.
Matters get serious when chic Charlotte (a glamorous Reed Birney), a literary celebrity, reveals to the group that she and Valentina have been working to get them established legally as a non-profit organization. The rest are hesitant once they find out that individual membership would have to be under their male identities, but Charlotte insists that this kind of openness will help them gain acceptance by society.
The key would be to disassociate themselves from homosexuals, since that is the assumption most people make about them. Once the rest of the country realizes that they find homosexuals to be perverted pedophile degenerates, insist Charlotte and Valentina, nobody will find their style of dress peculiar.
John Cullum, in his relatively small role as senior member, Terry, gives a poignant speech describing how homosexuals have always been the first to accept and support him.
It's a very interesting set-up but Fierstein does little with it. The characters are more symbolic than fleshed out and the play comes off more as a history lesson than drama. The humor is gentle, though the obligatory J. Edgar Hoover joke, which depends on the audience's knowledge of the future, cheapens the text a bit. So does a speech where a character envisions a better world 50 years in the future, when men are free to walk around in dresses, wigs and makeup without being accused of being gay.
The most interesting character turns out to be Rita, especially when she's making it clear that she married George and only George. She has no relationship with Valentina.
Director Joe Mantello gets excellent performances from the ensemble with no attempts to camp it up or to imitate women in any manner beyond their physical appearances. Even during a bit of silliness when they're entertaining themselves with a little lip-syncing show, it's clear that these are not what we would typically regard as drag queens.
Casa Valentina is by all means enjoyable, and certainly unusual, but it leaves the lingering feeling that Fierstein is capable of doing much more with the subject.