Directed with unexpected ripples of beauty by Joe Mantello, "Casa Valentina," which opened on Wednesday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, conveys the blessed consummation that occurs for ordinary people when they're transformed externally into what they think they are inside...This being a work by Mr. Fierstein -- who, no matter how daring his subjects, is an old-fashioned playwright at heart...paradise will be lost through a series of carefully laid-out confrontations...The terms of the arguments here are intelligent, and sometimes even provocative. But the air often feels filled with the dry dust of chalk erasers being batted together by a painstakingly instructive schoolteacher. This is a shame. For its first half-hour or so, when "Casa Valentina" is more show than tell, it promises to be Mr. Fierstein's most engagingly insightful play to date.
CASA VALENTINA Broadway Reviews
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Clothes unmake the men in Casa Valentina, Harvey Fierstein's mostly effective period drama about cross-dressers in 1962. Set at a Catskills resort that caters to straight married fellows who secretly dress and act like women, the play delicately traverses a midcentury American subculture at the time represented only in dirty jokes and horror movies. But if you want to know what impels these men to externalize their feminine sides, the play has difficulty peeling away more than a layer or two-it's more about gussying up than stripping bare.
Joe Mantello's impeccable production and a cast of outstanding actors make this an engrossing portrait of a marginalized group, but the strong set-up isn't matched by focused follow-through...A beloved Broadway fixture as well as a vocal LGBT rights activist, Fierstein is so perennially busy that it's surprising to realize how long it's been since his last new play...But just as out-of-town tryouts tend to be crucial in fine-tuning a musical, plays need thorough development too, and this one seems a workshop or two away from being fully realized. Which is disappointing, because there's no shortage of snappy comedy, tenderness, highly individualized character studies and thematic ambition here...Under Mantello's sensitive direction, the actors keep us invested in their characters, and there's certainly an inherent fascination in watching this unobserved pre-Stonewall subculture. But the play ends by freezing on a melodramatic gesture. Like a soap opera, it suggests that the story continues, without actually resolving anything.
Fierstein's compassion for his characters never flags, and director Joe Mantello juggles the vivacious and bleak elements of the play -- its warmth and wryness, both characteristic of the playwright -- adroitly. He has the benefit of a superb ensemble cast. Patrick Page and Mare Winningham have a poignant rapport as George/Valentina and his wife, Rita...Tom McGowan is an immensely endearing Bessie, one of several characters we only meet in their feminine guises, while Gabriel Ebert brings a goofy sweetness to the role of first-timer Jonathan/Miranda. Vets John Cullum and Larry Pine are predictably supple as, respectively, mother figure Terry and The Judge/Amy, who may harbor a dangerous secret. Reed Birney is hilariously starchy as George's aforementioned friend, Charlotte, who at one point declares that in 50 years homosexuality will still be shunned, while "cross-dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking."
Never underestimate Harvey Fierstein's gift for revealing new worlds within worlds we think we know well...Here he is back without a band with his first nonmusical in decades. And it's moving, beguiling and, yes, again historically significant without lecturing or threatening...The pitch-perfect cast has been directed by Joe Mantello with equal parts joy, anxiety and understanding of just the right handbags... Fierstein wants us to understand the vast spectrum of gender and sexuality. Along the way, bless him, he understands how to entertain.
Theater Review: A Fascinating, Somewhat Musty Look at Transvestism in Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina
But even within the new play's sampling of seven cross-dressers, the meaning of the act varies widely. For some it's a hobby, for some a sexual fetish, for some a substitute for the worse sin of gayness, and for some an expression of deep allegiance to the feminine side of their soul. For most, regardless, it's also a jumble...In any case, the way these motives come together, or don't, to advance the cause of liberation for "self-made women" is the subject of this fascinating if somewhat musty play...Luckily, Joe Mantello's disciplined direction pulls the script swiftly past its punch lines and sops up some of its sentimentality as well. The design and the cast (which also includes John Cullum, Larry Pine, Nick Westrate, and Lisa Emery) are up to the Manhattan Theatre Club's usual high standards. Still, none of these fine attributes can quite disguise the odor of over-ingratiation that clings to Casa Valentina like day-old Prince Matchabelli.
A quasi-witchhunt follows, setting a violent and sobering climax in motion. In a play full of proud fakeries, the story hits the loudest false note. Fierstein's explosive resolution feels rushed and less authentic to the characters than the Donna Reed wigs on their heads. Still, the most lasting impressions of Casa Valentina are good ones: Fierstein's meticulous dialogue, Joe Mantello's smooth and confident direction, the cast's flawless performances. And if the characters teach us anything, it's that confidence and charm can cover a multitude of imperfections. B+
The show, tightly directed by Joe Mantello, cruises through its first act, where Fierstein neatly balances pathos, killer one-liners -- "I'm so pretty I should be set to music" -- and a battle of ideas after Charlotte reveals her agenda. Things bog down after intermission, when there are one too many earnest speeches and saintly Rita admits to an unease with her marriage. Still, the entire cast is a delight, making us empathize with the characters' plights, dreams and journeys. And it's especially fun to watch Birney -- a specialist of milquetoast characters -- play a villainess with a messiah complex. Paradise may be lost by the end, but it's quite a ride to see it go down.
It's possible to leave Casa Valentina believing that drag for straight men -- as is drag for homosexual men and women in Hedwig and the Angry Inch -- is an ultimately imprisoning mental state. Yet, I have a psychotherapist acquaintance who maintains that some men who dress as women do so because they're so smitten with women, so enamored of their wives in many instances, that they want to find out what it feels like to be women. They're turned on by it -- as Albert/Bessie declares he is here. Fierstein might have made a point of getting around to that and to other psychological insights. That he hasn't hardly detracts from an amazing accomplishment and one that, as the Tony season ends, will be a strong contender for the coveted prize.
While the play is heart-felt and enjoyable, it doesn't feel quite finished, and it ends on a rash and depressing note. Since this is the world premiere production, one hopes that Fierstein can continue to develop it. And given his experience in drag performance, maybe he can even join the cast of a future production.
The inspiration for Harvey Fierstein's "Casa Valentina" was a discreet sanctuary in the Catskills where manly men (with wives and children and other baggage) could get their kicks in the bottled-up postwar era of the 50s by dressing up like girly-girls. But the play doesn't venture much beyond the facade of its true-life model. Fierstein vividly captures a group of these brave pioneers with their girdles on, and a trim ensemble helmed by Joe Mantello lends them character. But the plot is messy, the action static, and attempts to probe the psychosexual dynamic of transvestism are tentative and superficial.
Under the direction of Joe Mantello, the play benefits from superb acting, with each male character creating a strongly individual, convincing female self. Westrate's tough Gloria, Birney's careerist Charlotte and Ebert's awkward Miranda are all particularly vivid. "Casa Valentina" is very uneven, with abrupt changes in mood, action and attitude. But its illumination of a neglected corner of human activity is diverting, and often thought-provoking.
With "Torch Song Trilogy," "La Cage aux Folles" and "Kinky Boots" to his credit, playwright Harvey Fierstein knows a thing or three about the fluidity of gender, identity and sexuality -- and about men raiding women's closets. His fact-inspired story -- directed with sensitivity and style by Joe Mantello -- unfolds at a Catskills bungalow colony that caters to heterosexual transvestites. Very niche.
In the Playbill, Fierstein tells us not to call his characters "drag queens" or "female impersonators." And that's not the end of his sermonizing...From "La Cage aux Folles" to "Kinky Boots," Fierstein has created some very sympathetic hero-victims. With "Casa Valentina," those victims are looking more pathetic than sympathetic. He's the master of the long, bigoted diatribe that helps make the audience feel superior but leaves the poor character who's the object of all this verbal abuse simply battered and abused. There's much more nuance in Joe Mantello's direction of his actors, although even he doesn't succeed in softening Fierstein's sledgehammer when, late in the play, a transvestite's daughter (Lisa Emery) arrives to tell off the owners of the Catskills resort.