By: David Sheward
Broadway has given us plenty of musicals exploring the fluid nature of gender and the role of clothes in that sexual puzzle-from La Cage Aux Folles to Kinky Boots to the current revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But there hasn’t been a serious Main Stem play about cross-dressing until Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina. The difference between this work and the tuners (the first two are also by Fierstein) is that the musical heroes are gay and the characters in Casa are heterosexual males who long to dress as women. The play is set in a pre-Stonewall Catskill vacation bungalow, based on an actual place, where the guests can indulge their sex switch in comfort and safety.
Fierstein, a pioneer in depicting gays onstage with his autobiographical Torch Song Trilogy, structures his script much like another landmark gay work: Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. As in Boys, a diverse crew is gathered for a party-like event and the characters are a cross-sectional representation of their world. There’s the older generation reminiscing about corsets and petticoats, the pretty boy who is quite the ladies’ man in the traditional sense, the heavyset good-time "gal" hiding behind jokes, and the frightened novice who serves as a means for the hosts, Jonathon and his sympathetic wife, Rita (a "g.g." or "genuine girl"), to explain the codes and by-laws of the cross-gendered society. Also like the Crawley work, a crisis is precipitated when the newcomer violently assaults one of the established patrons.
There is some rich characterization and even insight here, but Casa is too much like a social and political debate rather than an honest depiction of stigmatized people attempting to find solace and comfort with each other. The main talking point is provided by Charlotte, a manipulative crusader out to make transvestitism as acceptable as apple pie by means of declaring the group’s unquestionable straightness and scapegoating gays. When Fierstein has Charlotte declare, "In fifty years, cross-dressing will be as common as cigarette smoking while the homosexuals will be as reviled as they are now," the author’s heavy irony practically drips. After the confab, the aforementioned physical dust-up, and a forced marital crack-up between Jonathon and Rita, the drama ends with a notable lack of resolution.
Fortunately, director Joe Mantello and a sterling cast bring out the humanity in these delegates to Fierstein’s debate club. Most brilliant is veteran character actor Reed Birney as the devious Charlotte. Decked out in costume designer Rita Ryack’s fashion-forward Channel suit, he is the most ladylike of the company because he’s the most comfortable in his/her own skin. Gabriel Ebert is touchingly awkward as the virgin cross-dresser, and Patrick Page (a notable villain in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas) is his usual commanding self as Jonathon the hotel owner, but he fails to find the woman in Valentina, his alter ego. Mare Winningham endows Rita with oodles of sympathy and almost leads her out of confusing forest of words the author has placed her in.
April 23-June 29. Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 25 minutes, including intermission. $67-125. (212) 399-3050. www.telecharge.com
Photo: Matthew Murphy