Seriously, why can’t a straight guy put on a dress and heels and create a female alter ego without having his heterosexuality called into question?
Actor-playwright Harvey Fierstein, who shot to fame with Torch Song Trilogy but has since become associated mainly with musicals such as Hairspray (which he starred in) and Newsies and Kinky Boots (which he wrote the books for), returns to writing drama with Casa Valentina, a fascinating, character-focused play inspired by a true story about a Catskills bungalow colony in the 1960s that attracted a niche crowd of socially respectable men who were not gay, had a wife and children, but nevertheless enjoyed dressing up as women.
It is set on a typical weekend where a small group of regular patrons has arrived to dive into their female selves in a safe and secluded environment. When one of the men puts on his dress and gets into character, so to speak, I felt undertones of the song “A Little More Mascara” from La Cage aux Folles, which has a book by Fierstein.
Conflict arises when the proprietor of the establishment (the deep-voiced, always excellent Patrick Page) is mailed nude photos, which attracts the attention of the government, and by a new proposal that all the men should register as part of a not-for-profit for transvestites, which would compromise their secrecy, and that such a group would explicitly exclude gays. Once debate ensues, the creeping issue of whether any of them are in fact gay comes up.
At one point, a character opines that in 50 years, gays will still be on the fringe of society while heterosexual men in dresses will have been accepted into the mainstream.
Director Joe Mantello, who like Fierstein has a background in gay drama (having acted in Angels in America and directed Love! Valour! Compassion!), draws rich, nuanced performances from his mostly male cast of stage veterans – all of whom appear in full female attire – including Page, Reed Birney, John Cullum, Larry Pine and Tom McGowan. Mare Winningham also makes a vital contribution as Page’s wife, showing signs of unease in spite of her longtime support for her husband.
While the play is heartfelt and enjoyable, it doesn’t feel quite finished, as it ends on a rash and depressing note. Since this is the world premiere production, one hopes that Fierstein can continue to develop it. And given his experience in drag performance, maybe he can even join the cast of a future production. Likewise, Fierstein ought to continue writing plays in addition to musicals.