Poor Harvey Fierstein! He only has three shows on Broadway (NEWSIES and KINKY BOOTS in addition to CASA VALENTINA). Maybe it's time to name a theatre after him. Unlike his hit musicals, CASA VALENTINA isn't an adaptation, though it was "inspired by" CASA SUSANNA by Michael Hurst and Robert Swope. Like most of Fierstein's work, it is about men in frocks. It demonstrates his gift for audience-pleasing storytelling but also, alas, his tendency toward tendentiousness.
The play takes place in a small Catskills resort that is intended to be a safe haven for heterosexual transvestites. It is 1962, a time when any deviance from the rigidly policed conventional gender order could lead to severe punishment. Unfortunately for the owners, George (Patrick Page), and his wife Rita (Mare Winningham), there aren't enough brave straight transvestites to keep the place running and, as with all minority "communities", there is a tenuous sense of social coherence. This particular weekend, the failing venture will either sink or be saved by a wealthy, powerful activist Charlotte (Reed Birney) whose tasteful pink outfit hides a fascist bully. Most of the guests on this particular weekend are regulars, ranging in age from definitely senior (John Cullum and Larry Pine) to thirtyish. Among the half-dozen guests there's a judge (Pine), and overweight ex-military hero (Tom McGowan) and a terrified newbie (Gabriel Ebert). These men find liberation in dressing as women, in expressing the feminine aspect of their personality. Most of them have wives and families. The doyenne of the place is owner George's alter ego, Valentina. What we have here is a kind of straight transvestite BOYS IN THE BAND. Like those characters, these men have been conditioned to despise themselves for the thing that gives them most pleasure. Like their counterparts in Mart Crowley's play, they also drink a good deal, throw a bit of a show, but lose their sense of community by the end of a long evening.
The catalyst for the crisis is ardent activist Charlotte, who is determined to establish a nationwide sorority for straight transsexuals and equally determined to ensure that no homosexuals are included in the group. For Charlotte, homosexuals are disgusting perverts (the common judgment then) and the main problem for people like him is that people immediately think transvestites are homosexual. For straight transvestites to be accepted and part of Charlotte's sorority, they must totally reject the gay community. When the other guests find Charlotte's attitude offensive -- after all, gay folk have been the only group to accept those transvestites -- Charlotte resorts to various forms of emotional and psychological bullying and, eventually to blackmail (she knows that there's a homosexual on the premises). The problem for the play is that Fierstein, who has a rather melodramatic sensibility, has made Charlotte such a villainess that she strains credulity. She becomes a male Joan Crawford. Villains only work in serious drama if the playwright has some sympathy with the character. Indeed, a basic rule of playwriting is that you have to like your characters. Fierstein obviously doesn't like Charlotte.
In the final scene, Fierstein gives us the woman's point of view toward the characters. The daughter of one of the men arrives to take him home and tells George and Rita what the patriarch's cross-dressing has done to his wife and family who live in constant fear that he will be arrested or attacked and that they will suffer public ignominy. Rita comes to realize that George and Valentina are themselves the perfect couple and that she has always been something of a third wheel, there to support George's fragile sense of his heterosexuality.
CASA VALENTINA is entertaining and absorbing at times. The play only clunks when Fierstein becomes too strident in making us take sides. He should read more George Bernard Shaw -- he knew how to make his villains seductive and almost convincing. Joe Mantello has given the play slick, well paced production and the ensemble is excellent. Octogenerian John Cullum was having trouble with a few of his lines, but he's such a lovable performer that no one cares. Gabriel Ebert was excellent as the timid debutante who has an all-too-brief moment of liberation of his feminine side. Mare Winningham is touching as the understanding Rita who loves George but is a bit scared of Valentina. All the other members of the ensemble are excellent. I was particularly drawn to Nick Westrate's Gloria. Westrate has been given a mere outline of a character, but manages to make one believe there's a lot going on behind the wig and sexy outfit.
CASA VALENTINA. Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. May 14, 2014.