by David Lally · April 28, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #84 David Lally looks at Casa Valentina at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
I’ve always liked Harvey Fierstein. In the heyday of “gay playwrights” (I hate that term) he was a breath of fresh air amongst the sturm und drang of Larry Kramer (The Normal Heart), Victor Bumbalo (Adam and the Experts) and William Hoffman (As Is). While those playwrights dealt specifically with the AIDS crisis, Fierstein took the everyday life of a drag queen and made his struggles real and funny. When Fierstein did deal with AIDS (Safe Sex Trilogy), two of the plays were comedies and it wasn’t specifically about anyone suffering from the disease, but the people left behind. Now Fierstein has returned after a play sabbatical of almost 27 years to present Casa Valentina at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
The play concerns a group of straight men who in 1962 meet at a Catskills resort to dress and act like women. It is based on a real-life 1960s Catskills retreat and the book "Casa Susanna" by Michel Hurst and Robert Swope.
George and his wife Rita run the resort, which is haven to such regulars as a judge and a former army man. Into the mix comes newbie Jonathon, a young married who is trying out his Miranda persona for the first time. As Jonathan becomes more relaxed and more comfortable with his surroundings, so do we, and pretty soon seeing a man in a woman’s dress, makeup and wig is the most normal thing.
George has been summoned by the local postal inspector to explain some suspicious mail and his resort is also facing financial problems. George is hoping that Charlotte, who oversees the magazine that George writes for, can offer him a loan, but Charlotte arrives at the resort with another agenda. She wants the men to sign an affidavit swearing that they are heterosexuals and not “queer”. In one of the many examples of what I call forecasting humor, Charlotte states that in 50 years when homosexuals will still be hiding in the shadows, transvestites will be living their lives out in the open. But Charlotte’s proposal is met with skepticism. As Terry (a glorious John Cullum) explains: “Haven’t we, in this rustic idyll, achieved a degree of our own perfection? Our own Garden of Eden? Why invite in the snake?” Charlotte is that snake.
Fierstein’s one liners are always funny and smart but it’s in the second act where I discovered a new found respect for his work when things turn a bit more serious with the fallout of Charlotte’s proposal. The group is now divided and suspicious, and as the evening wears on, mostly drunk. It is the Judge/Amy who points out that homosexuals were the only people who reached out, accepted him and treated him as one of their own when he first donned a dress. Charlotte subtly slithers her way around trying to convince the Judge, through persuasion at first, then ultimately blackmail, about coming around to her side, but it backfires, resulting in an accident that sends one of the group to the hospital.
After George returns from the hospital, he and Rita discuss their lives and the question is raised as to what happens in a marriage when one of its partners embodies both genders. As George himself points out, he knows everything about Valentina (his woman persona) and Valentina knows everything about him. It’s no wonder that his wife would feel shut out. In this scene, Mare Winningham, who seemed stuck in the thankless role as Rita, comes into her own as she ponders the state of her marriage.
I liked the fact that Fierstein raised these questions and left them unanswered. In his past plays he had a tendency to wrap everything up in nice, neat, happy ending bows and this seemed more realistic and a real maturation of Fierstein’s talents as a playwright. Sometimes there are no endings and sometimes endings aren’t tidy. (Ironic since one of the short plays in his Safe Sex Trilogy is called On Tidy Endings).
The ensemble work was flawless. Some actors were in drag from start to finish while others transformed themselves in view of the audience. I have seen most of these actors in other shows and they were completely unrecognizable, except for their talent shining through their perfectly coifed hair and makeup. My theatre companion for the evening, Andy Halliday (no stranger to drag as the co-star of many of Charles Busch’s best loved shows), was entranced.
I know I’ve enjoyed a show when, after I arrive home, I spend hours reading about the subject matter. Casa Valentina catches a moment in time that alas, in this era of RuPaul’s Drag Race, will never be seen again. As Valentina states, the purpose was not to be a caricature or a joke, but to pass as a woman who looks like she just got up from a card table. In the case of this play, mission accomplished.