Harvey Fierstein has recently joined Thomas Meehan and James Lapine on the A list of writers whom the establishment calls upon to crank out a book for a new musical, replacing Terrence McNally and Arthur Laurents who immediately preceded them in that position.
Most of these writers would prefer to think of themselves as playwrights first, and certainly Harvey Fierstein has the right to do so. His Torch Song Trilogy introduced him to us in January 1982, where its off/Broadway run was so successful, it demanded a move to Broadway in May of that year, where it remained until May of 1985. It dealt with an aspect of one still rarely dramatized gay life, and it opened doors for many a writer who followed, writing of other aspects of it. Now, after a string of successful musical books, including La Cage Aux Folles, Newsies and Kinky Boots he returns to his roots by penning a drama about another rare aspect of the social and sexual life of the American male.
Casa Valentina is set in a run down bungalow colony in the Catskill Mountains in the summer of 1962, long before civil rights for gays began to make their way, long before other “life styles” (any style other than “one man, one woman, one dog, 2 1/2 children properly propagated”) were even discussed publicly.
For this is a colony of proclaimed heterosexual men who have a natural predilection for dressing as women, whose desire to do so leads them to this broken down paradise in the woods for periodic vacations, sharing quarters with others of the same persuasion. Certainly this collection of “cross dressers” (who preferred the term to “transvestites”) represent a minority within a minority, and until now, little has been written about them, at least not for the commercial Broadway theatre.
Fierstein’s Club, which will in the course of this play, morph into the Cafe Valentina, is based on one called the Chevalier d’Eon Resort that actually existed. The men in its cast are not drag queens or female impersonators. Fierstein tells us in a program note, that “their need to dress and identify as female is personal and individual to each. For some, it’s a matter of gender identity. For others, the desire is of a sexual nature. But there is nothing frivolous or arbitrary in their behavior. The organization they helped found in this play is still in existence and there are more than 30 active chapters nationwide.”
In form, it’s not unlike The Boys In The Band, another play about a gathering of a group with similar tastes, in that case — all avowed homosexuals. This club is run by Rita and George, man and wife, who have managed to carve out a successful marriage with Rita living with, and embracing her husband’s imaginary other half, a woman named “Valentina”.
A stranger is introduced into the mix, a young man named “Jonathan” whose early days there are terrifying to him, as he tries to adjust to his only recent acceptance of his need to cross dress, to become someone he calls “Miranda”. His pleasant looks and his youth will cause some problems within the constituency and that one plot point is all that moves the play away from an argument and tilts it toward drama. I found it all interesting and informative, but only occasionally gripping or even involving. I felt more present at a lecture than I did at a play, but he experience was elevated by a fine ensemble cast.
Patrick Page and Mare Winningham, as the proprietors, are first rate, and the journey their marriage takes during the course of the play is what gives it its final shape. Reed Birney, another excellent actor, plays Charlotte, an intelligent, articulate opponent to the proposals put forward by George at a staff meeting. It’s in the big central scene that includes this meeting that the play falls dangerously close to a debate. Fierstein presents both points of view clearly but the only device he uses to do so involves a touch of speechifying and once in a while I felt I was being lectured.
But Joe Mantello, a very special actor himself, masterfully holds the directorial reins, and keeps the action and the multi-character play on course throughout.
Gabriel Ebert as the young novitiate, just testing the cross dressing waters, is fine. Mare Winningham, so winning recently in the Picnic revival, is once again giving a grounded and very touching performance. Patrick Page and Reed Birney continue to give star quality performances as their characters’ close friendship is challenged over emotional issues.
Tom McGowan, who is still remembered for his work in the short lived La Bëte, is the plump and very funny aptly named “Bessie,” who enjoys being a girl. Larry Pine becomes totally unrecognizable and completely convincing as “Amy” who lives most of her life as “The Judge”, which is startling. Lisa Emery makes much of a tiny but key role as the Judge’s daughter Emily, and it’s always comforting to know she’s not skipping a season, for she always adds luster to any company. John Cullum is another star performer, here blending beautifully into this ensemble as an older contributor, again fitting into another character unlike any other he’s ever inhabited. Nick Westrate as Gloria completes the sterling list of guests at the unique home away from home.
The Manhattan Theatre Club gives this interesting work a first class production, beautifully designed and lit by Scott Pask and Justin Townsend and perfectly clothed by designer Rita Ryack, whose costumes add considerably to the unusually and well worded text. Prepare yourself for a visit with a segment of society unfamiliar to most, beautifully realized by a writer whose work continues to grow, in which he shows us a side of the human condition that finally arrives to expand our own horizons.
Casa Valentina is onstage at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street (between Broadway & 8th Ave.) NYC.
Details and tickets.