Dudes look like ladies in “Casa Valentina,” an intriguing but diffuse new drama about straight cross-dressers in 1962 New York.
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.
Proprietor George (Patrick Page, rock solid) is also a client who goes by Valentina when he’s in a frock and wig. George’s gentle wife, Rita (Mare Winningham, appealing as ever), knows all and approves all.
In fact, she nudges George to get his Valentina on and mother-hen pecks his pal gals: Terry (John Cullum); Amy (Larry Pine), a judge and family man; and Bessie (Tom McGowan), a chubby ex-sergeant with a wife and three kids who quotes Oscar Wilde with every other breath.
And there’s Miranda (Gabriel Ebert), a nervous newlywed and Casa Val virgin who’s there with his friend Gloria (Nick Westrate). The show’s finest moment comes when Miranda’s makeover from mousy wreck to glamour girl fills the theater with giddy joy.
But the uplift is short-lived. Chanel-clad Charlotte (Reed Birney, poised and poisonous) wants to legitimize the cross-dressing “sorority” as a nonprofit organization. Rooting out homosexuals, using blackmail and federal connections, if necessary, is the way to do it.
That’s when the play goes pear-shaped and sinks into Joan Crawford melodrama. The message of “Casa Valentina” remains frustratingly murky.
“What the hell...? What the hell...?” says Rita in the last line. I’m with her.
In the early 1960s, a secluded bungalow camp in the Catskills was paradise to a few men. It was where they could be themselves — that is, women.
That real-life haven, where the most masculine guy could chillax in a bouffant and puffy skirt, provided the inspiration for “Casa Valentina,” Harvey Fierstein’s new dramedy.
Fierstein is Broadway’s reigning expert on gender-bending, having written “Torch Song Trilogy,” “La Cage aux Folles” and “Kinky Boots.” But here he explores a very different side of it.
These cross-dressers aren’t flamboyant drag queens but mostly button-down heterosexual men. George (Patrick Page) even runs the resort with his wife, Rita (Mare Winningham) — they met at her wig store, where he was shopping for his female alter ego, Valentina.
Our guide into this world is Jonathon (Gabriel Ebert), a young teacher who’s just driven up for his first weekend as a girl. The regulars quickly take him under their wing, giving him a makeover after he shows up for dinner looking like a drab escapee from “Little House on the Prairie.”
“She looks like Howard Cosell climbed up there to die,” Bessie (Tom McGowan) says of the newbie’s limp blond wig.
Yet Jonathon’s stumbling first steps are but a tasty side to the show’s main dish: a plan by well-heeled transvestite activist Charlotte (Reed Birney) to create an official sorority for cross-dressers.
“The enemy is secrecy,” she argues. “Remove the veil and remove the danger.” Tell that to Amy (Larry Pine), a judge who doesn’t want to risk his reputation or retirement.
Charlotte goes further, demanding that cross-dressers purge the homosexuals from the new group. Valentina, eager for her financial help, supports the plan, while the elderly Terry (John Cullum) and sassy Gloria (Nick Westrate) passionately oppose it.
They should have smelled a rat as soon as Charlotte said, “Not to toot my own horn, but there’s a Christlike element to my journey.”
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.
A beguilingly gentle magic whispers amid the speechifying of “Casa Valentina,” Harvey Fierstein’s prolix play about cross-dressing in the Catskills in the early 1960s. This intermittent, quiet enchantment is generated by men who otherwise tend to obstreperousness. But put any one of them in front of a mirror, with a tube of lipstick and some eyeliner, and he falls into a wordless rapture, as silent and luminous as a newly lighted candle.
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. As a Tony-winning chronicler of the lives of drag performers, in “Torch Song Trilogy” and the musicals “La Cage Aux Folles” and “Kinky Boots,” Mr. Fierstein has dealt with similar material before.
But the central characters in those earlier works were gay. The men who populate “Casa Valentina” — expertly embodied by a cast led by Patrick Page and Reed Birney — are emphatically heterosexual. Or so they say, and mostly you have no reason to doubt them. Yet while they never quite eradicate their masculine miens and mannerisms, they never feel more truly themselves than when they’re wearing women’s clothes.
The visual incongruity of big guys in dainty dresses has been a favorite source of comedy for as long as there has been theater. “Casa Valentina” skillfully forestalls any such laughter, though it’s often funny in other respects. The production starts with a tableaux of men, seated in separate pools of light, beginning their transformations to music (by Fitz Patton) as delicate as wind chimes. It will be awhile before we get to meet these fellows in their full feminizing regalia. But when we do, we are prepared to accept them almost as much on their own terms as they do one another.
The setting is the Chevalier d’Eon, a Catskills resort (based on a real place) where button-down married men from the city can slip into something more comfortable for the weekend. This sanctuary is run by George (Mr. Page) and his infinitely accommodating wife, Rita (a superb Mare Winningham). And if the place is a bit run down, for its guests it remains “our own Garden of Eden.”
This being a work by Mr. Fierstein — who, no matter how daring his subjects, is an old-fashioned playwright at heart — “Casa Valentina” sets a serpent loose in this Eden. And paradise will be lost through a series of carefully laid-out confrontations.
Such encounters — which include both earnest topical discussion and a climactic donnybrook — follow the rules of dramaturgy as they were practiced in the era in which “Casa Valentina” is set by playwrights like William Inge, Emlyn Williams and Robert Sherwood.
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. True, it’s a bit schematic in setting up the explosions to come. But there’s a naturalness to the introduction of each of the characters, who prove there’s as much variety among heterosexual cross-dressers as there is in any other social subset.
The lineup includes both relaxed old-timers like Bessie (played with spot-on timing by Tom McGowan), a decorated Army veteran with a fondness for quoting Oscar Wilde, and the nervous newbie Jonathon (Gabriel Ebert), whose makeover into the almost pretty Miranda provides one of the play’s more affecting moments. There are sassy young things like Gloria (Nick Westrate) and dowager types like Terry (John Cullum, if you please, in pearls) and Amy (Larry Pine), who in his civilian life is a venerable judge.
Most of these gals have known one another for ages. And it’s fun to hear them luxuriate in the easy banter and affection they share. But this is no typically relaxed weekend. For one thing, George, who becomes Valentina when he puts on a wig, has been summoned by the local postal inspector to explain some suspicious mail.
For another, the Chevalier d’Eon is facing financial problems. George is hoping to be relieved of them by a loan from Charlotte (Mr. Birney), a Californian who oversees a magazine and an organization devoted to the rights of cross-dressers, provided they’re not “queer.” Charlotte, to use one of the play’s favorite metaphors, is the snake who slithers into George’s paradise. Charlotte turns out to be the embodiment of McCarthyist-style villainy, proof positive that fascist instincts are as likely to be harbored under a Chanel-style suit and false bosom as under a brown shirt. Her genteel nastiness might tax credibility (or at least elicit hisses) if Mr. Birney weren’t such a persuasive, effortless-seeming actor.
But then the whole cast, which includes Lisa Emery in the thankless part of a disapproving daughter, is good. And there’s not a fault to be found with Mr. Mantello’s liquid staging of this Manhattan Theater Club production, or the refined work of a design team that includes Scott Pask (sets), Justin Townsend (lighting) and, crucially, Rita Ryack (costumes) and Jason P. Hayes (hair, wigs and makeup).
But at a certain point, the feeling arrives that a message is being thrust upon you by stiff, insistent arms. And you just wish that Mr. Fierstein trusted more in his actors to deliver that message by indirection and in his audiences to infer it.
For “Casa Valentina” poses some genuinely arresting questions about identity. Most strikingly, it dares to ask about what happens in a marriage when one of its partners embodies both genders. Is the other one shut out? Is there still room for fully reciprocal love?
Look at the face of Ms. Winningham, as Valentina’s wife, toward this play’s end. It tells you, more poignantly than words ever could, that the answers to such questions are far from simple.
Never underestimate Harvey Fierstein's gift for revealing new worlds within worlds we think we know well.
In 1983, the force behind such big commercial musicals as "La Cage aux Folles" and "Kinky Boots" broke big new ground and hearts -- and won two Tonys -- with "Torch Song Trilogy," a four-hour Broadway drama about a gay Jewish drag queen's quest for love and family.
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. "Casa Valentina" is inspired by a real, little-known Catskills resort in the early '60s where husbands and fathers took temporary escape from day jobs and "Mad Men" respectability to dress up as women.
We are in the world of cross-dressers, not specifically gay men, whose sense of gender duality finds safe harbor in the secret lodge run by George/ Valentina (Patrick Page) and his supportive wife, Rita (Mare Winningham).
The pitch-perfect cast has been directed by Joe Mantello with equal parts joy, anxiety and understanding of just the right handbags. On this particular weekend, a tentative young man (Gabriel Ebert) sneaks away from his bride to release what one longtime wag describes as "the girl within." Beneath the good cheer in the bucolic tri-level hideaway (designed by Scott Pask), however, trouble rumbles.
But before the trouble, first the joy. This includes John Cullum as the proud matron; Nick Westrate as the confident, saucy one with the cinch belt and crinolines; Tom McGowan as the hefty Oscar Wilde scholar with the knowing family and fondness for nighties, and Larry Pine as the big-time judge with big-time secrets and the dowager lack of style. (Unerring period costumes are by Rita Ryack.)
As George transforms from his suit into Valentina's cocktail dress (yet delightfully keeps his basso voice), we learn that the resort is facing bankruptcy, the feds are investigating gay porn sent through the mail and an activist cross-dresser (played with glorious imperial confidence by Reed Birney) could save the day.
The catch -- and the churning gut of the drama -- is the men must lose their anonymity and swear they're not gay. Who refuses and for what reasons? Fierstein wants us to understand the vast spectrum of gender and sexuality. Along the way, bless him, he understands how to entertain.
When we see a group of men on a Broadway stage wearing dresses and stiletto heels, it's often the case that a musical comedy is in progress. Just last season, Harvey Fierstein gave us an engaging example with Kinky Boots.
Casa Valentina (* * * out of four stars), which opened Wednesday at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is neither a musical nor, ultimately, a comedy. Mind you, Fierstein's first play since 1987's Safe Sex offers plenty of humor, and a bit of song, for that matter; it's set in 1962 in New York's Catskill Mountains, at a modest bungalow colony where folks go to unwind.
Unlike the more upscale resorts nearby, Casa Valentina, inspired by a real-life establishment, caters to a very particular clientele, who in the short time period covered here face a very particular crisis. Valentina, otherwise known as George, is male, married and a cross-dresser, as are his customers, for whom the Casa is more than a getaway — it's a refuge, a place where these guys can "breathe," as one puts it.
Business is not good, however, and George/Valentina is hoping that a well-connected buddy can help out. But the friend, also a cross-dresser and seemingly a champion of the cause, has a stipulation, one that would betray a sympathetic and even more widely ostracized community: men who don't have wives, or want them.
What follows is less a highly charged political piece — though Fierstein does make some pointed and passionate observations — than a reflection on the prejudices and the personal conflicts that challenge these characters. The men they were born as become separate, sometimes burdensome identities; Albert, after becoming Bessie, remarks, "I'm sorry his wife" — Albert's, that is — "is jealous, but she has every right to be."
A scandal involving racy photos complicates matters, and the tone grows increasingly dark, especially in the second act. But 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, who supports her husband ardently but becomes increasingly aware of her own needs.
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."
We've come a long way, boys and girls, but there's still plenty of road ahead.
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.
The whirling dervish of a scribe, who has beaucoup shows behind him and two current hits (“Kinky Boots” and “Newsies”) in play on Broadway, is proud to say (in “Torchsong Trilogy” and all over town) that he began his theatrical career as a drag performer. But that doesn’t seem to have given him any special insights into the supposedly straight males in his play who pack up their prettiest party dresses and dash off to their private mountain paradise at the opening of the season.
Casa Valentina takes its pretty name from the weekend identity assumed by George (Patrick Page), the big, beefy guy with the deep baritone who owns the shabby resort and manages it with his sainted wife, Rita (Mare Winningham, sweet of face, warm of heart), who does all the work. In due time, it will be revealed that the homey mom-and-pop operation is close to bankruptcy; but for now, it’s the beginning of a spring weekend and excitement is in the air.
Like all summer camps, Casa Valentina is a real place but also a state of mind and, in time, will become a warm memory of happy days long gone. Mindful of the loaded connotations of such a setting, Scott Pask has gone out of his way to design a place that looks like a real bungalow in the Catskills (with rustic furniture and slapdash decor) and a more intangible space where people can walk through open walls. Fitz Patton’s soundscape carries whispers of the outdoors, and Justin Townsend’s warm lighting design softens the lines of worry and woe on the faces of these old broads.
The arrival of a first-time guest, a self-conscious young man named Jonathon (Gabriel Ebert), suggests that we might learn something about the irresistible impulses that would embolden such a scaredy cat to duck out on his wife for the joy of staggering around in high heels for a weekend. Then again, a very funny makeover scene, in which the fashion-savvy older guests transform this painfully awkward youth into an adorably awkward girl, broadly hints of flightier fun.
Costumer Rita Ryack has done a swell job of choosing frocks, shoes, wigs, and fripperies (petticoats, handbags, etc.) that are both period appropriate and suitable for the individual characters wearing them. Their outfits aren’t in the least appropriate, let it be said, for schlepping through the woods. But there’s no Diana the Huntress among these ladies, who couldn’t bear to be far away from their mirrors, anyway.
All it takes is a pale yellow dress and a curly blonde wig to turn Jonathon from a timid mouse into a giddy girl, so delighted with the sight of herself in the mirror that she literally bounces up and down with glee.
A lavender lace cocktail dress and a big, bouffant wig make a kindly old grandmother of Terry, in John Cullum’s sensitively observed perf. A green brocade number and a slightly askew wig transform sad-faced Larry Pine from a sober judge into Amy, a contented frump. The two partner beautifully in the after-dinner soiree dansante in the barn.
Big fat Bessie (Tom McGowan) is the house clown, saddled with unattractive outfits and excruciatingly unfunny laugh lines, and Gloria (Nick Westrate), who fancies herself in form-fitting numbers, fancies herself regarding anything else that happens to come up.
The fashion plate you really want to watch, though, is Charlotte, who dresses with Chanel chic, accessorizes well, and in Reed Birney’s completely unaffected performance, presents herself as a natural-born woman. As the crusading leader of a new political organization devoted to winning social acceptance for manly transvestites (and keeping despised homosexuals out of her club), she also happens to be the villain of the piece.
Charlotte wields a plot device that finally gets the ladies off their butts and raising cautious questions about their own sexual identity. But the piece lacks the dramatic structure for any bold discussion of the postwar socioeconomic and political pressures on men — heterosexual and otherwise — that made them act out their fantasies of the dollhouse lives of women.