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NEW YORK — At its best, one of the great powers of the theater — like movies or television, for that matter — is the ability to expose an audience to something of which it has only a foggy understanding, if any at all, and, within a single sitting, open minds and change hearts. The best play Tony has recognized many such shows over the years, from The Diary of Anne Frank (1956) to The Miracle Worker (1960) to Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (1993) and Angels in America: Perestroika (1994).
This year, one of the five nominees for that prize clearly follows in that vein: Harvey Fierstein‘s Casa Valentina, a production of the Manhattan Theatre Club that presents the history, motivations and hardships of transvestites — or cross-dressers — in a most humanistic and compassionate way.
This is certainly not unfamiliar territory for the 59-year-old legend, whose last Broadway play was Safe Sex, back in 1987. From his career breakthrough, Torch Song Trilogy (1983-85), which he wrote and starred in, and which brought him his last nom — and a win — in the best play Tony category 31 years ago, through two of the most successful musicals that he wrote, La Cage aux Folles (1983-87) and Kinky Boots (2013-), the eccentric trouper has often focused on characters in drag.
Fierstein, as THR‘s esteemed theater critic David Rooney recently pointed out to me, has always managed to get laughs without ever treating these individuals with anything other than respect: Torch Song was a tragicomedy that depicted a drag queen as not just a campy caricature but a vulnerable human being in search of love. La Cage, for all its flamboyance, offered a nuanced depiction of a gay relationship, to which any couple could relate, at a time when those were not the subject of Broadway musicals. And Kinky Boots, while more frivolous, is careful to find the dignity and hurt in its drag queen character.
Casa Valentina is a deeply sensitive and funny work, as well. What distinguishes it from those earlier Fierstein works — to me, at least — is the scope and scale of its ambition. It aims not to tell the story of a single transvestite, or even a group of transvestites, but rather, in a sense, all men struggling with issues of gender identity. And while that is an impossibly tall task, it does manage to do so better than any other play of which I am aware.
Set in 1962, and inspired by real people, places and events of that era, Casa Valentina unfolds in a Catskills resort run by a woman (best featured actress in a play nominee Mare Winningham) and her loving husband (Patrick Page), the latter of whom dresses as a man on weekdays but — with the former’s knowledge, consent and general approval — a woman on weekends. Their regular guests — who are also their closest friends — are similarly-inclined guests of a wide range of ages and professions (Tom McGowan, John Cullum, Larry Pine and Nick Westrate) whose socially stigmatized predisposition is generally unknown to or unspoken about by others in their lives.
The plot revolves around the arrival, one weekend, of two first-time guests — a nervous youngster cross-dressing in front of others for the first time (Gabriel Ebert) and a longtime and outspoken leader of the cross-dressing “movement” (best featured actor in a play nominee Reed Birney) — at a time when the resort and the movement itself are at major, well, crossroads. This, organically enough, leads to engaging and enlightening conversations about the age-old history and plight of people of this nature, and debate about their future role and degree of acceptance in puritanical American society. (It also offers a a reminder that even some people who have known bigotry sometimes practice it.)
This year’s best play Tony race pits Casa Valentina against shows about American political history (All the Way), a theater legend (Act One), an Irish romance (Outside Mullingar) and grief (Mothers and Sons). Tony voters, much more than Oscar voters, waver between honoring shows about “important” and “socially significant” matters and more intimate alternatives. Casa, in a way, offers them an opportunity to check off both boxes. Whether or not it ends up taking home the prize, I suspect that it may impact many the most and be remembered the longest of the lot.
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