The inspiration for Harvey Fierstein’s “Casa Valentina” was a discreet sanctuary in the Catskills where manly men (with wives and children and other baggage) could get their kicks in the bottled-up postwar era of the 50s by dressing up like girly-girls. But the play doesn’t venture much beyond the facade of its true-life model. Fierstein vividly captures a group of these brave pioneers with their girdles on, and a trim ensemble helmed by Joe Mantello lends them character. But the plot is messy, the action static, and attempts to probe the psychosexual dynamic of transvestism are tentative and superficial.
The whirling dervish of a scribe, who has beaucoup shows behind him and two current hits (“Kinky Boots” and “Newsies”) in play on Broadway, is proud to say (in “Torchsong Trilogy” and all over town) that he began his theatrical career as a drag performer. But that doesn’t seem to have given him any special insights into the supposedly straight males in his play who pack up their prettiest party dresses and dash off to their private mountain paradise at the opening of the season.
Casa Valentina takes its pretty name from the weekend identity assumed by George (Patrick Page), the big, beefy guy with the deep baritone who owns the shabby resort and manages it with his sainted wife, Rita (Mare Winningham, sweet of face, warm of heart), who does all the work. In due time, it will be revealed that the homey mom-and-pop operation is close to bankruptcy; but for now, it’s the beginning of a spring weekend and excitement is in the air.
Like all summer camps, Casa Valentina is a real place but also a state of mind and, in time, will become a warm memory of happy days long gone. Mindful of the loaded connotations of such a setting, Scott Pask has gone out of his way to design a place that looks like a real bungalow in the Catskills (with rustic furniture and slapdash decor) and a more intangible space where people can walk through open walls. Fitz Patton’s soundscape carries whispers of the outdoors, and Justin Townsend’s warm lighting design softens the lines of worry and woe on the faces of these old broads.
The arrival of a first-time guest, a self-conscious young man named Jonathon (Gabriel Ebert), suggests that we might learn something about the irresistible impulses that would embolden such a scaredy cat to duck out on his wife for the joy of staggering around in high heels for a weekend. Then again, a very funny makeover scene, in which the fashion-savvy older guests transform this painfully awkward youth into an adorably awkward girl, broadly hints of flightier fun.
Costumer Rita Ryack has done a swell job of choosing frocks, shoes, wigs, and fripperies (petticoats, handbags, etc.) that are both period appropriate and suitable for the individual characters wearing them. Their outfits aren’t in the least appropriate, let it be said, for schlepping through the woods. But there’s no Diana the Huntress among these ladies, who couldn’t bear to be far away from their mirrors, anyway.
All it takes is a pale yellow dress and a curly blonde wig to turn Jonathon from a timid mouse into a giddy girl, so delighted with the sight of herself in the mirror that she literally bounces up and down with glee.
A lavender lace cocktail dress and a big, bouffant wig make a kindly old grandmother of Terry, in John Cullum’s sensitively observed perf. A green brocade number and a slightly askew wig transform sad-faced Larry Pine from a sober judge into Amy, a contented frump. The two partner beautifully in the after-dinner soiree dansante in the barn.
Big fat Bessie (Tom McGowan) is the house clown, saddled with unattractive outfits and excruciatingly unfunny laugh lines, and Gloria (Nick Westrate), who fancies herself in form-fitting numbers, fancies herself regarding anything else that happens to come up.
The fashion plate you really want to watch, though, is Charlotte, who dresses with Chanel chic, accessorizes well, and in Reed Birney’s completely unaffected performance, presents herself as a natural-born woman. As the crusading leader of a new political organization devoted to winning social acceptance for manly transvestites (and keeping despised homosexuals out of her club), she also happens to be the villain of the piece.
Charlotte wields a plot device that finally gets the ladies off their butts and raising cautious questions about their own sexual identity. But the piece lacks the dramatic structure for any bold discussion of the postwar socioeconomic and political pressures on men — heterosexual and otherwise — that made them act out their fantasies of the dollhouse lives of women.