Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 23, 2014
Casa Valentina by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Joe Mantello. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Rita Ryack. Lighting design by Justin Townsend. Original music & sound design by Fitz Patton. Hair, wig & makeup design by Jason P. Hayes. Fight direction by Thomas Schall. Cast: Reed Birney, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Emery, Tom McGowan, Patrick Page, Larry Pine, Nick Westrate, Mare Winningham.
Given this production, it's hard to disagree. Fierstein, who launched his mainline career with Torch Song Trilogy, about a different kind of cross-dressing, has crafted a deeply compelling look at this unsung movement at a transitional time in American history (1962), which director Joe Mantello and a peerless ensemble cast have brought to impressive fruition. Maybe not all of the seven actors who wear women's clothing for most or all of the evening "pass" continuously, but each of the people they play tells a poignant story that will make you feel they are all exactly what they proclaim they are.
The first we meet is Jonathon (Gabriel Ebert), a 30-year-old newlywed who's never appeared as "Miranda" outside his basement, but was coaxed to the Chevalier d'Eon Resort (named after a French nobleman who lived much of his life as a woman) in the Catskills by his friend Michael (Nick Westrate), a barely reformed womanizer Jonathon met shopping for wide-width shoes. An innocent in every sense of the word, Jonathon makes a less-than-glittering debut as Miranda, only to receive a top-to-bottom makeover that reveals his truer femininity beneath the nervousness.
Everyone else is more comfortable. Michael's Gloria is saucy and confident. Bessie (Tom McGowan) is, ahem, full-figured but kind and artistic-minded, the type to quote Oscar Wilde at every opportunity. The oldest is Terry (John Cullum), who's styled as an elegant throwback (despite the horn-rimmed glasses) that serves as a starchy corrective to the days when Southern delicacy considered petticoats a punishment rather than the pleasure he did. Amy (Larry Pine) is of the same generation, and more reserved, if inherently less straitlaced than in her "other" life as a judge.
This ignites the most captivating scene, in which those present must confront and admit their relationships to the gay movement. "I am not, nor will I ever be, willing to shoulder the unnatural acts of the homosexual," Charlotte says. "Unlike them, we are not seekers of prey. We don't hunt children, expose ourselves, or proselytize our practices — all activities of which the homosexual is guilty, and to which society rightly objects."
The scene, which brings the first act to a fiery close, dynamically addresses the latent prejudices of the era. As each participant picks sides and explains the reasoning behind the choice, the dangers of marginalization and discrimination are apparent, and derive organically from the discussion, requiring a half-dozen heterosexual men to justify and verbalize feelings for the first time. Staged by Mantello with palpable tension and great gusto, it promises an electric second act in which this myriad of corrosive concerns will be tackled, dismantled, and rebuilt.
After intermission, things become alternately whiny and diffuse, giving way to a dusty who- and whydunit that feels unnecessarily pat for what had previously been a thumping, free-form character study. What makes Casa Valentina work early on is how it normalizes what, for many, is an unusual set of circumstances. But by guiding the action into the channel he does, Fierstein makes things self-consciously plotty and far less interesting. And though the play roars back in its final scene, in which Jonathon and especially George are forced to make the most difficult choices of their lives, it fails to reacquire all of its early distinctiveness.
That's not a problem with the performers, though, who crackle with individuality. Ebert's transformation during that makeover is pure wonderment: Jonathon's insecurities melt away as Miranda emerges for the first time, and everything about the actor softens and relaxes appropriately. Page undergoes more costume changes than anyone, yet absolutely convinces as both the husband and the woman who doesn't need one; there's no question who he (or she) is or should be. Westrate boasts spitfire assurance as Gloria, and commands the surest fighting spirit onstage.
Winningham is keenly sympathetic as Rita and Lisa Emery, who makes a brief appearance as one of the men's daughters, rigidly anchors the outsider's view of this club of insiders. But everyone is totally believable, even Birney when the script requires he drop his crisp-but-studied playfulness in favor of a darker, more aggressive personality. The unassuming but eye-catching costumes (by Rita Ryack) help greatly with this; only Scott Pask's dreary, black, and disjointed scenic design fails to capture the frolicsome spirit of the play or its setting.
Fierstein and his characters do want to have fun, of course, but for all of them this is life-or-death stuff that will either validate and emasculate who they are. That lesson is never lost amid either the comedy or controversies, which occur with roughly equal frequency in Casa Valentina. These are real people with real struggles who crave real recognition; if that's the test for genuine humanity onstage, each and every one of them passes with flying colors.