Pasadena Playhouse tries on Harvey Fierstein's play about 1960s cross-dressers.
Fierstein's play shines a light on hatred in unlikely places with Casa Valentina, given a sly interpretation David Lee, who adds extra bite to this 2014 dramedy.
The play opens in 1962 at a Catskills resort that caters to a clientele of heterosexual gentlemen who enjoy dressing in women's clothing. Run by George (Robert Mammana) and his loving wife, Rita (Valerie Mahaffey), the hotel is a sanctuary for those who live this double life. Most guests hide their feminine side from their families, but Rita adores George, even when he transforms into the stylish Valentina. Under investigation and in financial straits, George welcomes an outside guest, Charlotte (Christian Clemenson), who runs a national magazine devoted to cross-dressers, and may be his best chance at salvation. But the other members become outraged by Charlotte's suggestions for changing their group. And a weekend that was meant to allow them to embrace their true selves turns ugly.
The cast shines. As the autocratic Charlotte, Clemenson embodies a PTA mom version of Nurse Ratched, all smiles while surreptitiously stabbing people in the back. He exquisitely captures female traits, from the way he crosses his legs while sitting, to a lighter vocal cadence. As Terry, Lawrence Pressman is a delicate flower worthy of a Tennessee Williams play. James Snyder, as the newbie Miranda, devastates as someone yearning to explore his femininity, but terrified of the consequences.
Mark Jude Sullivan is noble as the most free-thinking member, Gloria. Raymond McAnally earns the laughs as the robust class clown Bessie, who says cruel things about himself before anyone else has the chance. His scenes are touching as he wavers between self-respect and low self-esteem. John Vickery mixes rough-and-tumble machismo with deep vulnerability. Mahaffey brings her quirky persona to Rita, portraying her as a loyal wife who is sadly conditioned to heartbreak. Mammana is saddled with the most quizzical role and is offered little in the text on which to build a personality.
Fierstein's characters are all vividly drawn, and each has a distinct personality and sense of dignity. The characters' pain is palpable and relatable. But Fierstein tends to write in a heavy-handed fashion that strips the play of its impact. Several jokes feel shallow and turn the scenes into a sitcom, and this subject matter deserves more.
Lee's direction is seamless. Every gesture has purpose, and Lee keeps the pace active without skimping on the audience-character connection.
The set is masterful. Designer Tom Buderwitz builds an intricate, life-size doll house that flawlessly revolves 360 degrees to allow us to peek into each room. Jared A. Sayeg's lighting reflects the tranquil dusk and dawn of the New York mountain region. The women of Casa Valentina are blessed with Kate Bergh's elegant period dresses and Rick Geyer's chic wigs and makeup.
Though much has changed since 1962, the act of throwing others under the bus has not. While Fierstein explores this explosive concept in Casa Valentina, we're left feeling like he's only skimmed the well-coiffed surface.