Saturday, May 17, 2014

New York, Day Three - "Casa Valentina"

"Casa Valentina"

There is a moment - the very last moment, in fact - of Harvey Fierstein's new play about straight men of the early "Mad Men" era who like to dress as women when the shame that is still associated with transvestism sneaks through the veneer of tolerance.  But I'll get to that.

First, a little setup: "Casa Valentina" begins with the arrival of Jonathon - a young man who has somehow discovered a lodge in the Catskills where men can come to indulge their secret desires to transform themselves.  From Albert into Bessie.  From Jonathon into Miranda.  For a weekend, they can leave behind their jobs as accountant or judge and put on a frock and lip synch to the McGuire Sisters.

Unfortunately for the guests, Jonathon isn't the only new arrival at the lodge.  Charlotte, the editor of a speciality magazine for cross-dressing men and firebrand of what she hopes is a burgeoning movement for acceptance is also paying a visit - at the behest of George/Valentina, the operator of this establishment.  George, we learn, is on the verge of bankruptcy and the property could use the increased visibility (and perhaps additional capital) that Charlotte could bring.

What begins as a weekend of relaxation of becoming their female alter egos, quickly devolves into acrimony and anger as Charlotte turns nasty when her plan to recruit the guests into her national sorority of cross-dressers goes south because membership will be contingent on signing a pledge declaring they are not homosexual.

At one point Charlotte declaims, "Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking."  A recent article in The New Republic ponders why the exact opposite has proven to be true - that Americans are far more accepting of homosexuality than we are of cross-dressing.

This dichotomy is a recurrent (if subtextual) theme in "Casa Valentina."  It would be easy to see the play as an allegory for homosexuality - the otherness, the gender fluidity, the ostracism - except that it's not, because homosexuality is as front-and-center in the show as transvestism is.

Though the play raises interesting issues in an interesting way - with a handful of witty lines from Fierstein - it's not a great play.  Joe Mantello keeps the action moving forward and stages it well, but the dramatic arc takes too long to develop and never really achieves escape velocity.  The play is at its best when the characters are at their worst, and too much time is spent primping and preening.

Now, to that stain of shame.  At the curtain call, every character returns to the stage in the same costume they were wearing the last time we saw them on stage.  For most of the men, this is drag. But the actor playing George/Valentina (Patrick Page) was last seen in a knee-length black slip - yet at the curtain call, he has pulled a robe on over it.  Why?  It can't be modesty - he appears shirtless on stage in the first act.  It's not a particularly revealing slip, either.  More like a simple black dress.  Yet Page feels the need to cover up.  Perhaps he's making a point, but I think it more likely that the shame of cross-dressing persists and even Page, despite his involvement in this show, can't escape it.

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