by Harvey Fierstein
Direced by Joe Mantello
Ensemble cast featuring
Patrick Page, Reed Birney, John Cullum
and Mare Winningham
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
A Production of The Manhattan Theatre Club
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

Harvey Fierstein's Casa Valentina is his personal rumination on a place that actually existed in the 60s: a weekend resort home for transvestite males. And not homosexual transvestite males either, at least not purportedly. No, these were confirmed heterosexuals who nonetheless needed the outlet of dressing up like women and each assuming his own alternate female persona.

                  Casa Valentina falls into two categories of play (that often intersect): the gathering play, in which contrasting people drawn together by a common purpose assemble in a single place, whereupon hidden truths are revealed (think That Championship Season and The Boys in the Band); and the social awareness play, in which we are introduced to a facet or subset of society and each of the characters represents a key archetype, one from column A, one from column B, one from column C etc. (think The Boys in the Band and A Raisin in the Sun).

                  For the first nearly two thirds of its first act, Casa Valentina is an entertaining enough...romp, I suppose is as good a word as any, as the archetypes gather: the businessman owner of the house (Patrick Page) and his heroically understanding wife (Mare Winningham); the jovial, overeweight guy who's a military man in civilian life (Tom McGowan); the liberal old timer (John Cullum); the conservative with an anti-gay agenda (Reed Birney); the merciless voice of conscience and reason (Nick Westrade); the retiring judge (Larry Pine); and of course of course of course the novice, retiring in an entirely different way (Gabriel Ebert)

                  Once the gathering is over and all are in positions to may find the play becoming less engaging. I did because in this "second section," if you will, Fierstein is clearly out to educate; the dialogue becomes "informative" as issues are identified and debated, all comprehensively, in a symposium that dare not speak its name. And tuning into an authorial agenda means pulling back from the theatrical illusion of reality. And then you’re just watching actors at work.

                  I’m honor-bound to add, I hear-tell of those who are grateful for the education and enjoy it as, I suppose, one might enjoy a Shavian dialectic. But to me it felt distracting, and not dissimilar to the kind of inform-the-public dialogue in an issue-oriented TV Movie-of-the-Week, if somewhat pithier. And then, of course, there’s the subject itself. I won’t minimize the power of pathology, of behavioral compulsion, but asking the audience to understand the plight of heterosexual men who feel the need to dress up and act like women simply doesn’t have the same urgency as asking the audience to recognize that homosexuality is not a choice, or that the struggles of the working-class African-American community are as universal as they are particular. One can argue that the dramatization functions as a metaphor for any similar compulsion—but that philosophical slope becomes especially slippery.

                  In Act II, Casa Valentina seems to lose even that sense of purpose; we get a clear sense that the resort’s days are numbered, plot and thematic threads peter out or get dropped without resolution or even acknowledgement; and the finish is the most ambiguous moment of all. It’s as if the Casa is less a place than a state of mind; and as if its existence were less a story than an incident.

                  Of course, given the cast mentioned above (which also includes Lisa Emery in a late Act Two cameo) and Joe Mantello as director, Casa Valentina couldn’t be presented in a better, clearer, more watchable light. But that’s the thing about brilliant production. It’s just as prone to throw the flaws in relief as it is to camouflage them. And when you think about it, that’s where the metaphor holds up…

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