New York City Theater
Call them cross-dressers. Call then transvestites. Call them anything, but, for God’s sake, don’t call them drag queens or female impersonators or, horror of horrors, homosexuals. That’s the one thing the men who parade in women’s clothes in Harvey Fierstein’s provocative, very human play, “Casa Valentina,” won’t tolerate.
They have, after all, wives, children and jobs. So what if they express their feminine sides at a welcoming Catskills resort (based on the real Chevalier d’Eon)? So what if they slow dance or do a karaoke imitation of the McGuire Sisters? As long as they don’t (blech!) kiss or put the make on each other.
“We’re not drag queens or sex changers. We are simply the outward expression of the interior female,” says one. “I am, I dare say, my own perfect spouse,” says another. The mirror is their best friend, reflecting their double image.
The characters’ fear of being equated with homosexuals leads to a demand to sign an affidavit that they’re not gay. Fierstein, whose first play, “Torch Song Trilogy,” dealt with cross-dressing, as has much of his work since, abhors hypocrisy and closeted lives. When the scheming Charlotte (Reed Birney in a career-defining performance) threatens to blackmail one of the men to get him to sign the affidavit, the era’s prejudices are exposed. (The time is 1962.)
If that’s the underlying subject of the play, it’s handled awkwardly, as is fully exploring what the men’s dress-up desires must mean to their marriages. The second act’s preachiness leads to a sudden drop-off ending, just as the evening starts on another tangent.
For all its drawbacks, however, “Casa Valentina,” superbly directed by Joe Mantello with touches of mystery and lyricism, is hilarious when it’s not being poignant. And it’s acted with a triumphant attention to detail.
Besides Birney, so calculating, so snide, so domineering as Charlotte, there’s Nick Westrate as Gloria. Sure of himself as good-looking people are, Westrate’s tough, pragmatic Gloria is the play’s anchor.
But George (nee Valentina), is the central character. Owner of the failing resort, he’s desperate for money; hence, his courting of Charlotte as would-be savior. Also beset by his relationship with his wife Rita, George / Valentina epitomizes the play’s conflict between male and female. Patrick Page is so strong in the role that his uncomfortable straddling of genders as he’s drawn irrevocably to his interior self becomes much more compelling than other plot lines.
Tom McGowan is that familiar stereotype, the heavy-set fellow who cracks jokes so as not to have his heart broken. Larry Pine is Amy, the timid judge whose secret threatens to ruin lives, while Gabriel Ebert is the insecure Joanathon / Miranda and the great John Cullum is the empathetic Terry.
And, yes, there are real women in the play. Mare Winningham (so wonderful in the revival of “Picnic”) is equally wonderful as the vulnerable Rita. Accepting of the cross-dressers, she stays on the sidelines until her world begins to crumble. As Eleanor, the judge’s daughter, the excellent Lisa Emery tamps down disdain with an appearance of reasonableness.
With the invaluable help of costumes, wigs, makeup and lighting, this superb ensemble cast of men is transformed into a band of brothers who are really sisters at heart. They’re a sorority of outsiders, wanting in.
--David A. Rosenberg
May 8, 2014