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Casa Valentina: Theater Review

Casa Valentina Reed Birney Theater Still - P 2014
Matthew Murphy
Reed Birney in "Casa Valentina"

The Bottom Line

A lovingly staged production of a play more notable for its intentions than its insights.

Venue

Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York (runs through June 29)

Cast

Reed Birney, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Emery, Tom McGowan, Patrick Page, Larry Pine, Nick Westrate, Mare Winningham

Playwright

Harvey Fierstein

Director

Joe Mantello

Harvey Fierstein's new Broadway play is set in the Catskill Mountains in 1962, inspired by a real-life resort where ostensibly heterosexual men went to release their inner woman.

NEW YORK – The 1982 work that put playwright-actor Harvey Fierstein on the map was Torch Song Trilogy, a bittersweet account of a New York Jewish drag queen's longing for love and family. In Casa Valentina, his first full-length non-musical play on Broadway in almost 30 years, he explores a curious footnote in transgender history, setting the action in 1962 at a Catskill Mountains cross-dressing resort where married men went to lose themselves in female identities for the weekend. Joe Mantello's impeccable production and a cast of outstanding actors make this an engrossing portrait of a marginalized group, but the strong set-up isn't matched by focused follow-through.

A beloved Broadway fixture as well as a vocal LGBT rights activist, Fierstein is so perennially busy that it's surprising to realize how long it's been since his last new play. In addition to donning a muumuu and beehive in Hairspray, he's been steadily cranking out the books for a string of musicals. Those include hits like La Cage aux Folles, Kinky Boots and Newsies, as well as commercial disappointments like A Catered Affair.

But just as out-of-town tryouts tend to be crucial in fine-tuning a musical, plays need thorough development too, and this one seems a workshop or two away from being fully realized. Which is disappointing, because there's no shortage of snappy comedy, tenderness, highly individualized character studies and thematic ambition here.

STORY: Harvey Fierstein Opens Up About His Fiery Op-Ed on Russia's Anti-Gay Campaign (Q&A)

The setting is a bungalow colony based on Casa Susanna, the actual 150-acre Catskills retreat where men in the 1960s – from a wide range of professional fields, many of them married with families – could go to shed their gray business suits and liberate "the girl within." The regulars were not glamazon drag queens or female impersonators, and according to Fierstein's play, did not consider themselves gay (or homosexual, to use the more clinical tag of the era). While sexual desire clearly played a role in the experience for some, for others their gender migration was driven by biological impulse at a time when both institutional psychology and federal law offered no shield from societal intolerance toward gay or transgender behavior.

Fierstein and Mantello succeed in making their characters funny but also real, complex people and not campy caricatures. Much of the credit is due not just to the fine actors, but to the team of costumer Rita Ryack, and makeup and hair designer Jason P. Hayes. They make the weekenders look dignified and in their own way beautiful, even if the majority of them are pretty homely as women. A perfect example is the touching image of veteran actors John Cullum and Larry Pine as the group's old-timers, Terry and Amy, dancing in the evening light in their sensible shoes, frocks and gloves, looking like a pair of sweet, unattached aunties at a family wedding.

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The innkeepers in the play are married couple George (Patrick Page) and Rita (Mare Winningham), whose romantic life appears unimpeded by the fact that gentlemanly George regularly transforms into Valentina, a crisply put-together broad with a hint of late-period Joan Crawford. Financial troubles and some sticky business involving the postmaster's interception of pornographic material cast a cloud over the weekend as guests arrive. George turns to Amy in her day job as a judge for legal advice, while also hoping that well-connected West Coast trans activist Charlotte (Reed Birney) can help on the money front.

Other regulars arriving include Bessie (Tom McGowan), the rotund class clown, and Gloria (Nick Westrate), a sophisticated redhead in the Janis Paige mold. Joining them is first-time guest Jonathan (Gabriel Ebert), a young married man trembling with fear about unleashing his alter ego Miranda anywhere outside his basement.

A Tony winner last year for Matilda, the lanky Ebert gives a heartbreaking performance that personifies the terror of life in the shadows. When he initially appears as Miranda he looks like a sad sister-wife in a shapeless sack dress and lank hair. But when the pros get done with a full makeover, he more or less becomes Lily Rabe, jumping out of his skin with radiance and an unaccustomed sense of freedom that's deeply moving.

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The cast's standout is Birney, putting a subtle spin on a no-nonsense Bette Davis type as Charlotte, who turns out to be the snake in this Garden of Eden. Her agenda is to give their sorority legitimacy by making it a legally recognized nonprofit. But murmurs of resistance start instantly when the group learns that anonymity will no longer be an option. Many of them have painstakingly negotiated arrangements with their wives and children that would be jeopardized by wider exposure. And Charlotte's insistence that the path to social acceptance for transvestites lies in distancing themselves from homosexuals strikes some members as either naive or dangerous.

As lively as this heated dinner-table conversation is, Fierstein doesn't prevent it from veering off the dramatic rails to become a debate forum about prejudice and solidarity, or lack thereof. But even if the dialogue often turns didactic, the writing has warmth and humanity. The most stirring moment in this protracted discussion comes when Terry passionately refuses to sign anything denouncing a minority group in which she has always found support. (A national treasure who made his Broadway debut almost 60 years ago, Cullum plays the scene with unshakeable conviction.)

As clashing viewpoints are aired and frictions worsen, Rita and George's marriage suddenly seems less secure. She begins to question her relationship not with her husband, but with Valentina. While it's a telling detail, the fact that "the girls" sit back and let Rita do all the domestic work, confining their help to traditional male tasks like mixing cocktails, adds to the perception of her self-delusion. A health scare brings an outsider into the safe haven when Amy's brittle daughter (Lisa Emery) appears, representing the incomprehension, hostility and trust issues of those forced to accommodate their family members' double lives.

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There's sterling work from Page, Winningham and Pine in key roles, but the play's second act clouds its point of view in the fallout from an unconvincing blackmail plot. Having set up these wonderful characters, Fierstein stumbles dramaturgically once the conflict is introduced, as if he's unsure where to go from there. And for all the nuanced questions raised about sexuality, there's too little probing insight to provide satisfying answers.

Under Mantello's sensitive direction, the actors keep us invested in their characters, and there's certainly an inherent fascination in watching this unobserved pre-Stonewall subculture. But the play ends by freezing on a melodramatic gesture. Like a soap opera, it suggests that the story continues, without actually resolving anything.

Venue: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York (runs through June 29)

Cast: Reed Birney, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Emery, Tom McGowan, Patrick Page, Larry Pine, Nick Westrate, Mare Winningham

Director: Joe Mantello

Playwright: Harvey Fierstein

Set designer: Scott Pask

Lighting designer: Justin Townsend

Costume designer: Rita Ryack

Music & sound designer: Fitz Patton

Fight director: Thomas Schall

Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, by special arrangement with Colin Callender, Robert Cole, Frederick Zollo, The Shubert Organization

Matthew Murphy