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Casa Valentina: In brief
Harvey Fierstein's first nonmusical play since 1987's Safe Sex concerns a group of straight men who in 1962 meet in the Catskills to dress and act like women. The ensemble includes such fine character actors as Larry Pine, Reed Birney, Gabriel Ebert and Patrick Page. Joe Mantello directs the world premiere, which we hope won't be a drag.
Casa Valentina: Theater review by David Cote
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.
The quick, ignorant answer is because they’re probably gay. Fierstein, who based his drama on a book documenting a similar ’60s retreat, allows that possibility to linger through the two acts, but refrains from cheap trapped-in-the-closet laughs. There’s abundant camp attitude and verbal bitchery, but on terms set by manly proprietor George (Patrick Page), who runs the Chevalier d’Eon, a bungalow colony for all sorts of frock-loving men, from nervous newbie Jonathon (Gabriel Ebert) to old timers Terry (John Cullum) and the Judge (Larry Pine). George’s sensible wife, Rita (Mare Winningham), helps him run the place, with him playing hostess as the glamorous and brassy Valentina.
Taking place over a briefly idyllic June weekend, the story hinges on an attempt by coolly arch activist Charlotte (Reed Birney) to get everyone to sign a loyalty oath swearing that none of them is a homosexual. This prompts a complex and fascinating debate between homophobic “femmepersonators” and those more sympathetic to fellow travelers on the social margin. These prickly sexual politics boil over in the second act, as Charlotte resorts to blackmail and George/Valentina loses control in both aspects of his/her life.
Joe Mantello commands the finest corps of character actors onstage now, in an impeccably designed production that shifts subtly from bubbly comedy (Fierstein’s one-liners are sharp as ever) to eruptions of pain and shame. (Rita Ryack’s costumes are perfectly calibrated to the social position of each wearer.) The only problem with Casa Valentina is a rather big one: Fierstein sets up 80 percent of his story, then doesn’t know how to finish it for maximum impact. The men disperse, George and Rita are left with a wobbly marriage, and we exit on a dour, doubtful note. No one would expect a purely happy ending for Kennedy-era gender explorers, but a big-picture epilogue—like a luxurious silk camisole at the end of a trying day—would have cut a sweeter figure.—Theater review by David Cote
THE BOTTOM LINE Boys just want to be girls in Harvey Fierstein’s smart new play.
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote