REVIEW: Casa Valentina, Samuel J Friedman Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Casa Valentina - Nick Westrate (from left), John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert and Tom McGowan. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Casa Valentina – Nick Westrate (from left), John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert and Tom McGowan. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Casa Valentina
Samuel J Friedman Theatre
13 April 2014
4 Stars

It’s 1962 and the memory of the McCarthy witch hunts are still hot and fetid. In a small guesthouse in the Catskill Mountains, a group of men gather for a weekend of elegant fun. Each man is married but each harbours a passion for dressing up in female attire, complete with make-up, wigs and heels. These are happy, elegant self-made “women”. Some of them have known each other for years and all are friends. The wife of one man, the man who owns the guesthouse, is there with them, jollying them all along, encouraging their particular personal release.

Into this group comes two strangers. One is a newbie, taking his first tentative steps into the world of transvestism. The other is an old hand, a career transvestite who has a political agenda to raise the profile and general acceptance in society of men like himself.

Such is the set-up of Casa Valentina, a new play by Harvey Fierstein, now premiering at the Samuel J Friedman Theatre on Broadway in a production directed by Joe Mantello. Between them, Mantello and Fierstein have been involved in or responsible for pretty much every important gay play in the last fifty years of American theatre.

Casa Valentina, however, is not such a play.

Far from it.

It’s a play about a different world entirely and one, curiously, that seems at odds with the mantra of acceptance that permeates, or seems to permeate, gay culture. But it is important to remember that the play is set in 1962 and that the characters express views that predate, mostly, the free-loving 60s, Stonewall, the AIDS crises and the campaigns for acceptance of gay marriage.

It is that rare theatrical beast: a warm and funny, sometimes hilarious, play, full of interesting characters, which turns on a dime and plunges into a dark, forbidding place of anguish, despair and betrayal.

Mantello directs the proceedings with great love and care. Scott Pask’s beautiful set features several dressing tables and mirrors and at these, in various states of undress, the men make themselves into their female alter egos as the play opens. It is a deliberately beautiful beginning and it wraps the proceedings in a sense of old world gentility which is comforting both because of the memories it evokes (everyone had a mother with a dressing table like that) and the distance it creates between the present and the play.

The play is beautifully written for the most part, although it does seem a trifle long. There are many excellent one-liners, but there is also a sense of bonhomie which pervades the writing and which is crucial to the play’s success.

In the first act, the established “girls” band together to give a girly makeover to the newbie recruit, Miranda, and that scene is one of the most joyous and heart-warming moments in theatre anywhere on a Broadway stage currently. It glitters with generosity and a common, shared desire for femininity.

But it is not just in the happiness that Fierstein’s writing excels. He understands the pain too and that is clearly portrayed. And he writes difficult arguments well, with clarity and vicious detail. So the surprises of the script have real menace and effect.

The mostly spot-on casting helps considerably.

John Cullum, an old Broadway hand (having originally appeared in the original production of Camelot), is simply wonderful as the elder matron Terry. He lands every laugh line he is given but also shines when the dramatic spotlight comes on him. His speech about why he would never turn on the homosexual community who provided him friendship and solace in times of desperate loneliness is a masterclass in superb, understated dramatic delivery.

The versatile Nick Westrate is magnificent as the fiery redhead, Gloria, all full skirt, trim waist and high heels. Steely and implacable, Westrate makes Gloria a true force of nature. Her altercation with her host is one of the evening’s highlights and I will long remember the chill that ran along my spine as he talked about “plundering the bodies” of the girls he had at University. It’s a true, vigorous and completely whole performance. Marvellous in every way.

Tom McGowan, as the friendly, fat Bessie, the one with a heart of gold and a penchant for quoting Oscar Wilde, the one who is a career soldier in his male life, is a blaze of chiffon, lipstick and heart-on-the-sleeve jollity. But he can turn like a wraparound skirt, and he does, to both comic and dramatic effect. Another delicious performance which never strays into parody.

The most difficult role, that of the respected Judge by day, Amy on the weekends, the man with a wife and daughter who loathe his feminine side, the man who can be broken because of a moment of weakness, goes to Larry Pine who is quite wonderful as Judge/Amy. His sharp legal mind is clear when his curly brunette wig is not on, but once it is Amy has the ground and won’t let it go. He provides a luminous study of trapped sensibility, encased desire, foolish trust in others.

But the bravura performance of the evening is handed in by Reed Birney who plays Charlotte, the career politician in a dress; the one who wears an orange business suit, chain smokes, drinks gin martinis – the one who could have been your piano teacher or history teacher or the nurse at the local Doctor’s office. The complete embodiment of female efficiency, Charlotte is as vile and duplicitous – and totally, self-righteously indignant – as they come and Birney teases all of this out effortlessly. He is especially chilling and extraordinary in a long, immaculately pitched speech where he destroys the life of one of the other “girls” there. It is a subtle unsubtle performance, which may sound like a contradiction in terms but really is the key to the astonishing work he does here. Acting as good as it gets.

Birney’s character is the one who teases out some of the central issues of the play: the difference between homosexuality and dressing up; the public’s inability to see shades in gender activity, to differentiate between man, woman and men who want to dress as women, to tolerate that which is different. He has a marvellous speech where his character opines that in 40 years (so about now) homosexuals will still be scuttling about in the shadows, while men dressed as women will be as omnipresent and accepted as smoking. It is interesting to contemplate how the world might have been different had his character had his way (in the real life events this play riffs on).

As the newbie, Miranda, Gabriel Ebert is also excellent. His sense of trepidation and outright fear is palpable, morphing into genuine excitement and unfettered bliss following his makeover. The transition is genuinely touching to experience and what happens in Act Two is made all the more powerful by the happiness he brings to Act One. His final, incredibly sad and moving scene, is brutal, heart-breaking and absolutely right.

But it’s not all roses. The owners of the guesthouse where everything happens, spouses Rita and George, Mare Winningham and Patrick Page respectively, do not work either individually or as a couple. Winningham is far too glib, too imprecise to be effective as Rita, a woman who, on any view of it, has made deliberate choices and chosen clear paths. Wishy washy she is not.

Page does not seem real, especially when contrasted with the other Sorority sisters. He does not seem at home with his feminine Id, which is a considerable difficulty since the entire climax of the play turns on his need to hold fast to his feminine persona.

The play would be much more of a powderkeg of dramatic possibility if these two characters were played by actors with more willingness to lose themselves in the particular people these parts are – in exactly, the same way the rest of the cast does.

It was singularly telling that Page always looked uncomfortable and manly as Valentina, George’s alter ego. He needs to be as relentlessly girlie as the others and, equally, so does Winningham’s Rita. She is playing one of only two women, and her character is alive, thoughtful and sensitive, a complete contrast to the other (Lisa Emery as a cold, incendiary, dead inside child of the Judge) – Winningham, however, elects for bland offhand emptiness when really, she is playing the one character who has made choices and stuck to them constantly, not just on weekends, her whole life.

Rita Ryack provides wonderful costumes, and the hair, wig and make-up design from Jason P Hayes is terrific. The period is clear, the colours vibrant and the sense of inclusive femininity quite delicious. Justin Townsend lights everything quite delicately, beautifully – inducing poignant reflection or wise happiness with a flick of the switch. It’s careful, profoundly insightful lighting which adds immeasurably to the strength of the production.

This may be the best play Fierstein has ever written.

It is certainly thought-provoking and shines a light upon a sub-culture that rarely gets the spotlight. It’s thoughtful and clever, witty and searing. It needs a uniformly exemplary cast and in that one respect Mantello’s production does not do it justice.

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