Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler reviews the latest work by Harvey Fierstein.
“When you make the two one… and when you make the MALE AND THE
FEMALE INTO A SINGLE ONE—then shall you enter the Kingdom.”
– The gospel of Thomas, Transvestia Magazine
Casa Valentina, a new play by Tony-winner Harvey Fierstein that opened tonight on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is not perfect. But as the audience learns by going down the rabbit hole with a little-known group of men ensconced in a bungalow colony in the Catskills circa 1962, life is not perfect. It does not always look the way we want it to. And those who have the fortitude (some may call it courage while others may view it as cowardly) can discover an alternate life… a cryptic duality that exists in fantasy but is realized through a crinoline skirt or a padded bra. This is the world of The Chevalier d’Eon—a secluded enclave operated by husband and wife proprietors George, otherwise known as Valentina (Patrick Page), and Rita (Mare Winningham).
Director Joe Mantello deftly maneuvers Fierstein’s complex script that is based upon the real-life colony that catered to self-proclaimed heterosexual men whose deepest desires were to dress and act as women. These were not the kind of men who would later march in the streets during Stonewall or take over the Castro. They were white-collar professionals with families who yearned for a discreet and safe environment to inhabit their alter egos.
The annual gathering includes a handful of new and returning guests, including (among others) a hauntingly fragile and troubled Jonathan/Miranda (Gabriel Ebert), who ventures to the retreat for his first public outing as a woman; Bessie (Tom McGowan), the bawdy broad of the group; Terry (John Collum), a flighty septuagenarian who can still pull off eveningwear; and the evening’s plot driver, Charlotte (a deliciously spot-on ‘60s-inspired performance by Reed Birney), who arrives with the intent to unite the group into an official organization to help gain acceptance in open society.
Casa Valentina raises plucked eyebrows in its nuanced exploration of gender identity and its relationship—or lack thereof—to homosexuality. Even within the LGBT community, it has taken decades for transgender men and women to gain recognition. Among the characters, there are varying degrees of identification. Most firmly embrace their heterosexuality, their wives and their manly place in society, yet this undeniable need to express their inherent womanhood pulses through their veins. “Personally I luxuriate in the conceit of having dual personalities,” says Bessie. “I am, I dare say, my own perfect spouse. And we are the perfect couple. I’m sorry his wife is jealous, but she has every right to be.”
But this perfect world starts to unhinge as Charlotte attempts to stronghold the group into signing a membership registration that proclaims the sorority of cross-dresses but denounces homosexuality. One isn’t sure if she’s got a bit of pre-Roy Cohn in her but there’s definitely something awry as she vehemently abhors any thought of gay relations among her chosen community. Such is the conflict at Casa Valentina as Charlotte’s waxings begin to unhinge the group.
Fierstein beautifully portrays the humanity in each of his characters. It is what has defined his body of work from Torch Song Trilogy to last year’s Tony Award-winning Kinky Boots. The script occasionally feels dramaturgical and weighty with rhetoric, but the hot summer night as visualized by Scott Pask (scenic design), Justin Townsend (lighting design), Rita Ryack (costumes) and Jason P. Hayes (hair, wig and makeup), firmly ground the language in a sense of time and place.
Joe Mantello, whose own duality has placed him both onstage as a Tony-nominated actor and Tony-winning director, for the most part extracts captivating performances from the veteran ensemble. Patrick Page as George/Valentina pours a complex cocktail of hyper-masculinity, odd naivety, and a downright sexuality. Larry Pine as The Judge/Amy, who finds herself at the epicenter of the sorority’s ethical debate, is equally as engaging and complex. In fact, all of the men and their female counterparts have their moments in the spotlight. Unfortunately Winningham’s performance falls short. Slighty dull and with little motivation, she meanders through the play as a vehicle for the more colorfully portrayed characters surrounding her.
In a Broadway season that has brought us Terrene McNally’s Mothers and Sons and an acclaimed revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina may be perhaps the bravest of the bunch. Rita asks George in the play’s final moments, “In your perfect world, if you could have anything, what would it be?” It is a question many of us are afraid to ask. And even more afraid to answer.
Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
Editor Matthew Wexler’s work has appeared in Hamptons, Gotham, Hemispheres, Passport, Private Islands, among others. Read more at roodeloo.com.