I can’t believe it! But I think “Casa Valentina” by Harvey Fierstein is the best new play on Broadway. Harvey Fierstein has written the most mature, crafted play of his chequered career, and yes, once again, drag queens are front and center. Or more specifically in this case, transvestites, who are straight, married men with children and careers, who come to the Casa Valentina, a secluded resort in the Catskills, to escape, relax and be themselves.
The transformations of the many well-known actors is nothing short of amazing. And it’s magic that happens in plain sight, as John Collum, Tom McGowan and the Green Goblin himself Patrick Page, sit in front of endless make-up mirrors, well, making up.
Theirs is an enchanting introduction to many of the characters this way and it beguiles because you see how it is making these sad, uptight men of all ages happy.
Some are so into their drag personas that they arrive that way and stay that way, never a hair out of place. Nick Westrate makes a dazzling red-headed spark plug named Gloria, who arrives with the equally stunning cool, older, society deb-like champagne blonde Charlotte,(a superb Reed Birney) who likes to organize things. Maybe a bit too much.
Charlotte is on a mission this summer weekend. She wants to organize the trannies into a “sorority” along the lines of the Mattachine Society and the lesbian Daughters of Bilitus. In unity, there is strength, and she feels that transvestites as the gay groups before that I’ve mentioned need to stand up and be counted. But for some, if not all of these men, it is a very dangerous proposition.
The time is 1962, and Casa Valentina describes itself as a “run down bungalow colony in the Catskills, ” but it seems to be a decade earlier.
All these lovely ladies are stuck in a time-warp of the mid-50s, and costume designer Rita Ryack and Hair, Wig and Make-up designer Jason P. Hayes, are to be commended(and hopefully awarded) for their just too-too perfect recreations of the these amazing transformations that take place at the Casa Valentina.
The newest resident is last year’s Tony Winner for Best Featured Actor in a Musical, Gabriel Ebert, who played “Matilda”s skeevy British dad. Here he’s the uptight, innocent Jonathan who wants to transform into Miranda. And does!
I defy anyone not to fall in love with the entire cast. They really seem totally adorable. You want to hug them all.
Even later in the play when the question of homosexuality raises its’ “ugly” head. These are all heterosexual men who adamantly proclaim their straightness despite their comme il faut wardrobes.
Homosexuality and the word “queer” are something that they can’t condone. And Charlotte’s attempt to organize them into a sorority also comes with a codicil. She wants them to sign a statement of purpose document, stating that they have nothing to do with repellent world of homosexual men and their practices.
This causes dissension, and is really the well-spring of the plot and propels the serious debate of these issues. Which I feel is commendable. I’ve never seen these questions raised so completely on a Broadway stage before.
I’ve lived in a world full of drag queens all my life, or a large part of it anyway, certainly my long-gone youth. But it was always in a theatrical context, like with the Ridiculous Theatrical Company and the Playhouse of the Ridiculous, which I was once upon a time a member of both, back in my salad days.
The late great Charles Ludlam elevated drag to a new height, but he always maintained that he was an actor playing the role of a woman. Charles Busch’s new play called “The Tribute Artist” is how he phrased it. He wasn’t a female impersonator, he was a tribute artist, honoring the great celluloid divas of Hollywood’s past.The late beauty Candy Darling was truly a transexual, though she never had the operation. She lived in drag. Warhol superstar Jackie Curtis lived in drag, but had periods where as Lou Reed said in his song “thought he was James Dean for a day.”
Sexuality is, as its’ emblified, a rainbow. It’s complicated, and sometimes seems full of unanswerable questions, and “Casa Valentina” raises all the right ones in this endless, eternal debate of the fluidity of sexuality, male and female. It doesn’t necessarily answer all of the concerns it raises, but I was very happy to see the revered Manhattan Theater Club putting on this important new play, in a bang up production,at the height of awards season, that illuminates as it entertains. And kudos to MTC, and to the astounding director Joe Mantello, for bringing this together in a sometimes joyous, sometimes bittersweet, sometimes hilarious, but always impeccable, smooth production.
Don’t miss it!