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First Nighter: Harvey Fierstein's Highly Accomplished 'Casa Valentina'

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When you hear that Casa Valentina, Harvey Fierstein's new play, at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman, takes place at a Catskills resort where men cross-dress in a completely compatible environment, you may be thinking, "Ah-hah, our beloved Harvey and men going about as women -- this is bound to be a knock-your-socks-or-stockings-off spin on La Cage Aux Folles.

Turns out you'd be almost 180-degrees wrong. Yes, Fierstein fans, there are plenty of belly laughs as the two-acts unfold on Scott Pask's lean version of a mountain getaway that's seen better days. But the playwright has much more on his mind and up his chiffon sleeve. What he's conjuring is a work along the lines of his reputation-making Torch Song Trilogy but far more probing, far more trenchant, far more unsettling than that earlier three-part opus.

The weekend on which he's concentrating is the one in 1962 where Casa Valentina -- actually doing business under the name Chevalier d'Eon as the action begins -- is in danger of shuttering for financial reasons. So owner George (Patrick Page), known as Valentina when in drag, has invited a national activist calling himself Charlotte (Reed Birney) in his female guise to join the most loyal guests with a proposition meant to save the establishment.

Complicating George/Valentina's worries is his recent implication in a mail fracas the local authorities have uncovered. All this is transpiring as he and heretofore understanding wife Rita (Mare Winningham) are welcoming heavy-set Albert/Bessie (Tom McGowan), older transvestite Terry (John Collum), glamorous Gloria (Nick Westrate), the sporting Judge/Amy (Larry Pine) and relatively young newcomer Jonathon/Miranda (Gabriel Ebert).

Things are progressing well and amusingly -- particularly when the giddy bunch decide to give awkward Miranda a make-over -- but take a turn for the deeply serious when at a formal "sorority" meeting Charlotte introduces a charter she's put together whereby the men gathered would sign their names as proudly open transvestites. Charlotte's conviction is that forthright citizens declaring themselves in this way will help legitimize cross-dressing as just another unthreatening expression of human sexuality.

Charlotte's plot doesn't go down smoothly with the others, especially when he/she insists that they all ratify a clause dissociating themselves from homosexuality. She maintains that more often than not, cross-dressers like them -- straight men with an impulse -- are often assumed to be gay. That damaging canard must be aired and changed, Charlotte insists.

Once the scene where the suggestion is mooted has been played -- in something a bit too close to a veiled debate than some ticket buyers might find dramatically comfortable -- Fierstein keeps the characters wading in troubled metaphorical waters.

Even though he starts his second act with Bessie, Gloria and Valentina lip-synching to the McGuire Sisters' "Sugartime" (and even copying some of the famed siblings' choreography), he's ingeniously stirred up problems for most of the participants. Certainly, revelations about the true nature of The Judge/Amy create a sticky situation for the conflicted man. And certainly, a bribery scheme Charlotte hatches gets seriously ugly.

Perhaps as disturbing as any of the twists Fierstein deviously and deliciously works into the script is the change in George and Rita's seemingly happy marriage. That surfaces after the late and provocative arrival of Eleanor (Lisa Emery), who announces herself as the Judge's daughter. Whether George and Rita can go on as before, whatever the future of their co-owned business, looks to be an unresolved question.

Curiously, Casa Valentina is the second production to bow in two days dealing with the slippery issue of gender-bending. (The first is Hedwig and the Angry Inch.) Fierstein deals with the much less discussed, generally sub rosa topic of primarily cross-dressing heterosexual men. Decades and probably centuries old (and fully accepted in some societies), the practice wasn't new when the retreat called Casa Susana made the news -- and caught Fierstein's attention -- as the subject of a 2005 picture book edited by Michel Hurst and Robert Swope.

Heterosexual cross-dressinng still a somewhat arcane issue, however, it's not surprising that Fierstein who's been championing related causes for close to 40 years takes up this one. Maybe he's long intended to delve further into a condition with which he had so much touching gaiety in the above-mentioned La Cage Aux Folles. With this one, he gets around with unflinching concern to intolerance, blackmail and the cruelty of the divided psyche. While at it, he demonstrates his awareness of the destructive potential of compulsive behavior.

His concern is not to be sneezed it, and also prompting no sneezing is Joe Mantello's tight and sympathetic direction of top-notch Broadway actors submerging themselves in perhaps their most challenging roles with no hint of camping to distance themselves from the men they're portraying.

There is no first among equals here -- Birney, Cullum, Ebert, McGowan, Page, Pine and Westrate all get into their wigs, frocks and make-up with consummate skill. Mare Winningham, who seems to have made New York theater her base nowadays, is simultaneously strong and vulnerable. Emery attacks her one scene with her usual forthright flair.

And about those female accouterments the actors gussy themselves up in before their vanity tables: Rita Ryack has collected all manner of outfits that men in the 1960s, who are stuck in 1950s fashions, would affect in order to pass for bridge-playing housewives. Jason P. Hayes concocted the hair-all-a-curl wigs that get plenty of exposure during the two acts.

One avenue Fierstein doesn't go down is explaining why these men -- standing in for a possibly not inconsiderate population -- do what they do. Yes, he suggests that for some of them it's a compulsion but without searching for the source of the compulsion. A couple of them appear to be pursuing their alter egos merely for the fun of it, but why is it simply fun for them? Westrate's Gloria in her crinolines and flaming red coiffeur comes across as the only one of the group who has no inner demons flailing to be freed. Again, why?

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.