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Casa Valentina

Harvey Fierstein's new Broadway drama examines a weekend colony where men can dress as women.

Patrick Page as Valentina, Reed Birney as Charlotte, Nick Westrate as Gloria, John Cullum as Terry, and Larry Pine as Amy in Harvey Fierstein's Casa Valentina, directed by Joe Mantello, at Broadway's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Harvey Fierstein's new drama, Casa Valentina, features an enviable group of New York's finest male actors. The list ranges from the venerable 84-year-old John Cullum and contemporary greats like Reed Birney, Patrick Page, and Larry Pine, to the new generation, Gabriel Ebert and Nick Westrate. And if you look hard enough — you might even be able to see them.

These seven gents, wonderful actors all, are virtually unrecognizable. Why? They're dressed like ladies. Inspired by true events, Casa Valentina, playing Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, is set in 1962 at a Catskill Mountains resort where exclusively heterosexual family men could spend weekends living their lives as women. It's an intriguing concept for a fact-based drama, one that hasn't often been explored onstage before, and Fierstein, in his first non-musical in a quarter century, has crafted a piece that, warts and all, is far and away the best new play of the season.

At the play's center are George (Page) and Rita (Mare Winningham, one of play's two women), a married couple who runs the bungalow colony Chevalier d'Eon. On the fateful day the play depicts, George, who has a feminine persona named Valentina, has just returned from a meeting with the postal inspector regarding an envelope filled with homosexual pornographic images meant for an unnamed guest at the resort. As the couple deals with the potential negative implications this can have in an era where homosexuality was still illegal, they simultaneously expect the arrival of Charlotte Price (Birney), the leader of a social sorority for transvestites that has just been recognized as a nonprofit organization.

With that in mind, Charlotte invites the group to form the first East Coast chapter. In doing so, they'd have to provide a legal name and address, thereby removing their delicately preserved anonymity. They would be required to sign an affidavit pledging they are not homosexual. The goal, Charlotte claims, is to see "cross-dressing laws expunged once and for all," but "as long as transvestite is synonymous with homosexual, it will never happen."

The second half of the play becomes a suspenseful gay "witch hunt," as secrets are exposed when certain people reveal they know more about the pornographic mail situation than they initially let on.

Even if Act 2 is a bit too much of a shift in tone from Act 1, masterful dramatist Fierstein has crafted a compelling story, with characters that would be believable as humans even if they were portrayed as caricatures. But there's no need to worry about that here; with delicate, understated direction by the ever-reliable Joe Mantello, every actor is working toward a common goal.

Page, a tall, imposing actor who has made a name for himself playing a series of stage villains, would at first seem like a better fit as the snakelike Charlotte. But Page is very moving, if a bit stiff, as George, who, whether in his female guise as Valentina or not, feels like someone with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Birney, an actor who has long specialized in dramatizing the plight of the Everyman, and would, at first glance, be a natural George and Valentina, delves boldly into Charlotte and isn't afraid to make her unlikable. Winningham is affecting as George's put-upon wife, who has got a lot more bubbling under the surface than she initially lets on.

The remaining cast members, including Tom McGowan and Lisa Emery, do similarly fine, emotional work. To single out any of them, whether Pine or Ebert or Westrate or Cullum, would be unfair to the group as a whole. Collectively, they form one of the greatest ensembles Broadway has ever seen, and audiences are fortunate to watch their deep, heartfelt performances.

In keeping with the tone of the play itself, Mantello has staged Casa Valentina like an old noir film. Scott Pask's airy set looms large, while Justin Townsend's moody lighting helps create evocative stage pictures. Hair, wig, and makeup craftsman Jason P. Hayes and costume designer Rita Ryack lend their expertise turning the gentlemen into convincing ladies in period- and age-specific clothes. Fitz Patton's incidental music slowly wracks the nerves and appropriately ratchets up the tension.

Most important, Casa Valentina serves as an eye-opening lesson about a subject of which very few people are aware. Fierstein unlocks the door to a chapter in the country's history that is immeasurably deserving of the superb recognition it now receives.