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Casa Valentina — MTC at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre — NYC

untitled (27)The laughs stop suddenly in Harvey Fierstein’s new play, “Casa Valentina.”

Three quarters through a first act that appears to center on a fun-filled cross-dressers’ sleepover, complete with snappy one-liners and shrieks of delight when the “girls”  treat a frowsy newcomer to a makeover, matters turn without warning to serious business in which prejudice and conspiracy rear ugly heads in insidious and unexpected ways.

Fierstein’s comedy about men, mostly married, who enjoy wearing and showing off their various frocks, heels, wigs, and accessories without fear of ridicule or reprisal during  weekend get-togethers  in the Catskills, circa  1962, becomes an issue-laden piece about a rift in transvestite ranks concerning acceptance of homosexuality. Froth, fluff, and frivolity give way to pointed political discussions that draw light on the classic conflict of minorities rejecting or being bigoted towards other minorities, even when they may have something besides being “the other” in common.

Fierstein can’t have merriment and turmoil operating at the same time, so “Casa Valentina” becomes two plays, a light but hilarious look at men having a good time in their preferred way, existing for a while as women, and a polemic that drives home the attitudes and beliefs that divide us and make harmless activities, and even a biological mandate, a cause for setting up battle lines on which we all are expected to take sides. One play is funny and briskly paced with Tom McGowan as a character named Bessie scoring a wise crack every 30 seconds. One play is thought-provoking and replaces laughs with heavy considerations as Reed Birney’s character, Charlotte, a leader in the transvestite world, challenges the ladies present to stand with her in defining and defending who may or may not be welcome in their company. Both plays are entertaining even if it comes as a shock at first to see them comprised under one title.

Fierstein, by the way, doesn’t completely give up on comedy. The second half of “Casa Valentina” has its share of honestly earned laughs even as it concentrates on weightier subjects. McGowan’s Bessie sees to that.

Bessie spouts her views, but she isn’t interested in being political or being a strong advocate for any point of view. Through Bessie and others, such as Terry, the senior member of the group, played sweetly by John Cullum, Fierstein shows there are people, even some who will be affected by changes or decisions, who prefer to refrain from dealing with issues and just have their lives. Bessie can be articulate, but she made her peace with cross-dressing ages before “Casa Valentina” begins, so she is not eager to upset the status quo or be in league with others who take strong stances.

That doesn’t mean Bessie hasn’t thought through all that being a transvestite means. She has her serious moment when she talks about how her craving to dress as a woman affects her wife and three children. She reveals that she, like the character in Doug Wright’s play, might be her own wife, the woman who completes the man Bessie is when she is in her everyday world of working, in men’s garb, to support a family “Casa Valentina” seems to say loses something  because of “Joe’s” obsessive and satisfying relationship with Bessie, who is also “Joe.” The show’s most interesting character, Rita, a biological woman who dresses and proceeds through life as a woman, and the wife of George, whose  when dressed as a woman, is called Valentina, echoes some of Bessie’s sentiments. She says she considers George to be her husband and Valentina to be an in-law but wonders who she is to Valentina and how Valentina regards her. Mare Winningham  is particularly stunning as Rita. She and “The Glass Menagerie’s” Celia Keenan-Bolger will most likely be the lead contenders for this year’s Tony for best supporting actress in a play.

You see the complexity of the theatrical stew Fierstein prepares in “Casa Valentina.” A gay beginning changes abruptly into a bittersweet, and even a sad or vicious, view of cross-dressing and various levels of acceptance. Homosexuality becomes an issue in a way that seems to come out of left field, or more precisely right field, a way that is surprising in spite of being logical in “Casa Valentina’s” context. Fierstein’s purpose seems to be to find the depth beneath many levels of façade, and he reveals those depths but sometimes more in the style of a documentarian than a dramatist. “Casa Valentina” is a bit schizoid about whether it is a comedy, a serious drama, or a melodrama. It has traits of all three genres. It doesn’t quite satisfy the needs of any of them, yet it engrosses you through all of its hair-pin turns and makes you think about what you saw and how it affects the various characters.

1962 is seven years before Stonewall and a year before the Kennedy assassination that will introduce the actual 1960s and foment changes in social attitudes and mores that will indeed be revolutionary.

“Casa Valentina” takes place just before those changes manifest themselves and become part of a new American fabric. It exists in a ’50s world in which conventional behavior is expected and being unusual or queer in any way can have dire consequences, much more pronounced and severe than most that might be inflicted today. We live in a neo-Puritan time, but one that accepts differences. The ’50s were an era in which a standard way of living was expected from everyone. Variations from the alleged norm, and there were plenty, were kept private or secret if acted upon at all. Venturing too boldly from any closet was that grim a prospect.

A married couple, George and Rita, own a small resort in the Catskills where they rent bungalows to vacationing families whose numbers are dwindling as air conditioning in the city become preferable to a three-hour schlep to the mountains for cooler and fresher air. George is a transvestite, famous in the cross-dressing community because of the column he writes for a national magazine for transvestites under the nom de plume of Valentina.

Valentina is more than a pen name. It is the name of the woman George becomes when he indulges in a favorite pastime, dressing up as a chic and handsome lady of society.

George is the leader of a group of cross-dressing men who meet regularly at his Catskills property to have a weekend of freedom from being scared, judged, or jailed for satisfying their yen to don women’s apparel and settle into their own female alter egos. While the “girls” are at play, Rita and George close their resorts to the families and children that enjoy it most of the time.

When George’s group is in residence, the resort takes on a new name, one that honors a French prince who lived his life openly and eventually acceptedly as a woman. Like George, the men who gather are straight and married to varied degrees of happiness, George’s relationship with Rita being particularly blissful as Rita is copacetic with all that George arranges as Valentina. As played by Winningham, she is not empathetic or oblivious. She is an open-eyed, aware woman who simply, and without judgment, goes with the flow and enjoys the company of her husband’s friends.

During the weekend depicted in “Casa Valentina,” several things happen. One is the arrival of a newcomer, played with giddy anticipation by Gabriel Ebert. Jonathon has been Miranda since he was a child, but this is the first time he’s ever taken Miranda out of his basement and into a wide, wide world populated by others who get the same thrill from cross-dressing. Needless to say, Miranda is excited especially when her new friends raise her hemline, bob her wig, and find her just the right earrings to go with her pale green outfit.

images (6)The other two creases involve legal matters. George has been summoned by the local postal inspector to explain a package of photos that are considered pornographic. He and Valentina are both upset by this accidental discovery that could lead to time in prison. Meanwhile, Charlotte, the editor of the magazine for which Valentina writes, has been convicted of wrongdoing (more because of stupid laws than by any real malfeasance) and as part of her community service is assisting the U.S. government in assembling a list of transvestites. (You remember what Ronald Reagan said? “The scariest words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.'”) Charlotte wants to speak to Valentina’s group and ask them to register as transvestites and form an organization that will work for recognition of straight cross-dressers in general society. Fierstein uses Charlotte’s offer to reel off a great one-liner about J. Edgar Hoover, a notorious cross-dresser.

Most of the “girls” panic at the idea of being on a government list. Charlotte counters by saying that during her investigation, the prosecutors seized her mailing list, so all of them, as recipients of her magazine, are exposed anyhow.

Discussion is passionate. Bessie and Terry take a neutral stance. Amy, who is a judge in his private life, argues against giving any information to the government and finds Charlotte’s proposal odious. Most of the men, even those, like George, who backs Charlotte because he thinks cooperation  will aid his case with the postal inspector, blanch when Charlotte says one of the benefits of registering will be a declaration, written in as part of the membership agreement, that members of the newly formed organization are not homosexual and, further, that they abhor and disavow homosexuality. (When I told this to my friend, Dawn Stensland, she said, “Oh, just like the Mummers!”)

This becomes a major issue, and frankly, I think it is the basis for Fierstein writing “Casa Valentina.”

Charlotte, with George in support, rails about how often people confuse men who cross-dress with homosexuals and how offensively repugnant that is to him. She reveals herself to be a homophobic bigot who regards preference for the same sex as loathsome and deserving of the incarceration and other strict penalties Charlotte claims to want to spare straight transvestites from having to endure.

The argument becomes quite heated, one debater of course mentioning that all homosexuals (I use this term instead of gay because in 1962 “homo” or “queer” would have more common in talking about gays and because Harvey Fierstein uses these terms in his play.) do not cross-dress and another stating that minorities, such as queers and transvestites would do better to stand together to bring about general tolerance for personal traits rather than going to war against each other or throwing each other into legal systems.

Fierstein covers all sides of the homo question, sometimes at the expense of “Casa Valentina’s” flow or even its status as a play. The end of the first act, where Charlotte drops her salvo, seems more like a news program or city council meeting than a drama. Fierstein is so careful to include every point of view, he turns his cast into a discussion group in which each member calmly states his opinion. Fireworks will ensue, but first comes a sequence of statements that are presented in such a civilized way, it’s hard to predict the passion that will come, particularly in the second act when the “girls” have had a chance to digest Charlotte’s proposal and its aftermath and decide how each wants to go about her business.

The cast of “Casa Valentina” is uniformly sensational. From Patrick Page’s Valentina to Ebert’s Jonathon/Miranda, every actor displays laudable sincerity and strong character. The cast from the Globe Theatre’s production of “Twelfth Night” rightfully glommed most of the Tony nominations in the supporting actor category, but Tom McGowan, Larry Pine, and Nick Westrate could have easily joined Reed Birney among the Tony contenders, just as Page would have been welcome among the lead actors.

Westrate’s Gloria, whose male name is Michael, is the prettiest and most activist of the girls who assemble for Valentina’s Catskills weekends. The friend who introduced Jonathon to the group, Gloria has easy sophistication and and nimble gay wit. Michael never quite comes out as queer, but he is the staunchest defender of homosexuals when Charlotte begins her Justice Department-induced onslaught.

Whether helping Miranda enjoy her makeover, walking around chicly with a cigarette, or tearing holes in Charlotte’s argument, Westrate is the picture of intelligence, style, and feminine elegance. Gloria tends to be overlooked in the fray because her lines are more tart and pointed but not as frequent as Bessie’s, and her role as defender of gays is taken over by Pine’s judge/Amy. Westrate doesn’t let that lack of center stage prominence get in the way of giving a complete, sophisticated, sincere performance.

Patrick Page has been a favorite of mine since I saw him opposite Scott Bakula in the Old Globe’s “Dancing in the Dark” six years ago. His deep resonant voices makes his line reading jump off the stage and gives each syllable importance.

As George and Valentina, he portrays a man who is torn. Both of his egos have gone to great lengths to build a club in which men of like minds can gather in harmony and joy. Now, because of a dilemma of someone else’s making — The suspicious envelope containing porn was addressed to George but only for him to pass on to its actual recipient. — he must make a pact he finds somewhat unsavory with Charlotte.

Page plays a complete character. Because you see George and Valentina with Rita, you get a total picture of his life, and Page makes you care about both of his egos and their struggles.

Tom McGowan is glorious as Bessie, a character who, in spite of being able to show sadness and feel sympathy for his wife, is content with his life. As a man, he supports his family and gives and gets affection. As Bessie, he can revel in his craving to cross-dress, dish wittily with the “girls,” often quoting Oscar Wilde, and even enjoy and embrace his stoutness.

For the most part, Bessie has come to comfortable terms with who she is. McGowan shows her spirit and how tickled Bessie when she can get a big, unanimous laugh or start everyone singing and dancing.

Reed Birney is regal as Charlotte, a career woman who has made being a transvestite into profession and is out to protect her stake in life and her literal freedom. Dressed by Rita Ryack in a tasteful peach ensemble that would do well at a Chestnut Hill gathering, Charlotte is the picture of accomplished authority, and Birney plays her as such.

The cool clarity with which Charlotte introduces the idea of registration and the quietly spewed venom with which she attacks homosexuals who besmirch cross-dressing because of their sexual habits, is a credit to Birney’s ability to build a character that can chill and be poised simultaneously.

Larry Pine takes an amused stance as the judge, until Charlotte’s silk-gloved evil touches him personally. A scene in which Pine breaks down and commits an act that shocks everyone is particularly effective for the actor and “Casa Valentina” in general.

Gabriel Ebert, coming off his Tony-winning turn as the father in “Matilda,” reminds us that he is a versatile youth lead. His Jonathon is a nice mixture of shyness and excited anticipation. His talk with Rita about his wife and his life is sincere and affecting. As Miranda, Ebert does well at being abashed when Jonathon notices Miranda is not as glamorous as the other “girls,” then being elated by Miranda’s makeover. His second act scene has a lot of dramatic wallop. Jonathon is the character for whom you feel genuine pity because you know his optimism has been spoiled along with the dream he came to Rita and George’s to realize.

John Cullum add his usual professional touch to Terry, the oldest of the “girls,” one who can recall the 19th century but who can dance with the best of them and be quite natural in his feminine persona.

Lisa Emery has a fine turn as the judge’s daughter, one who doesn’t want to hear any excuses for cross-dressing and expresses clearly what her father’s habits have meant to her family. As good as Emery is, I would like to see her in a different play in a bigger role. When she came on stage, I thought, “Here is a lead actress taking a bit of a breather but doing it with forthrightness and power.”

Mare Winningham is so remarkably genuine as Rita, you barely know she’s acting.

Rita is a good old girl who loves George, enjoys his friend, and rolls with the punches. Winningham shows Rita to be competent at just about everything from running a big resort, cooking intimate meals, palling around with the guys and girls, doing hair, and being devoted to George.

Rita is the character everyone in the play, and everyone in life, should aspire to be, a woman who shows her contentment and doesn’t reveal her angst until a situation forces her to speak her mind. Even then, she does so in a matter-of-fact manner that Winningham endows with more dramatic effect than if she let Rita explode and emote wildly.

Winningham makes Rita so unconditionally likeable while keeping her authentic. She represents the most complete human being on the stage, the one who can cope with the ’50s that are, the ’60s to come, and her husband’s alter ego, no  matter how Valentina relates to her, something neither George nor Valentina can articulate.

Winningham’s is masterful work, and I would not be surprised if she is handed the Tony next month.

With a cast this praiseworthy and a production that maintains its interest and holds is compass even when the plot changes radically, you know Joe Mantello did his customary excellent job as “Casa Valentina’s” director.

Rita Ryack must have jumped for joy when she was named the costume designer for “Casa Valentina.” Her taste in general, and her individual choices for characters, is impeccable. Most of the men in Fierstein’s play say they were drawn to put on women’s clothes by merely seeing them hang in a closet or store window. Ryack makes the most of a tasteful cross-dressers’ fantasies. She doesn’t miss a detail, and the cast of “Casa Valentina” may be the best dressed on Broadway.  Jason P. Hayes did an equally fabulous job designing the wigs and makeup for Valentina and company. I don’t know why anyone who wants to look great would go further than a Broadway designer to get just the right frock and the perfect look to make one stunning. I particularly liked the way Ryack and Hayes dressed and made up Bessie.

Scott Pask’s set made George and Rita’s place look better than an lot of Catskills resort did in 1962. It is the right combination of rustic and decorative.

“Casa Valentina” runs through Sunday, June 15 under the auspices of the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street, in New York City. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Tickets range from $125 to $67 and can be obtained by calling 800-432-7250 (Telecharge) or going online to www.telecharge.com.

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One comment on “Casa Valentina — MTC at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre — NYC

  1. ulpyieav@gmail.com
    May 16, 2014

    Je suis tombée par hasard sur ton blog et je ne le regrette pas du tout, ton article m’a beaucoup appris

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