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Most of Harvey Fierstein’s plays have come from his experience, his heart, his croaking, wit-spewing mouth. The 2014 Tony-nominated “Casa Valentina,” seen here in a crackling area premiere by SpeakEasy Stage Company (at the Calderwood Pavilion through Nov. 28), was born of archaeology, dressed to the nines in agenda.
A decade ago, at a Manhattan flea market, a trove of photos was unearthed depicting life in the early 1960s at a rustic Catskills safe haven for heterosexual men who liked to cross-dress. Weekenders ditching the gray flannel suit for hosiery, frock and wig, these guys kicked back at a camp called Casa Susanna, where they could nurture “the girl within” while chastely bonding with the other prettily clad clientele.
That was sweet but hardly dramatic. So the inimitable Fierstein, a Tony winner as playwright (“Torch Song Trilogy”), librettist (“La Cage aux Folles”) and actor (“Hairspray”), fixed on the serpent of homophobia slithering through this mid-20th century Garden of Eden. (Don’t blame me; Biblical allusions abound in the play.) And he didn’t have to weave the snake out of whole cloth.
Transvestia magazine, for which the real-life Casa Susanna proprietor wrote a column, was indeed “dedicated to the needs of the sexually normal individual,” meaning straight, and fiercely held itself apart from the then-largely-closeted gay community with its flashier, more aggressive drag element. As the muscling “Casa Valentina” character based on the magazine’s founder puts it: “We either ban homosexuals or we are homosexuals.” Unfortunately, Fierstein’s play, rife though it is with tenderness and bon mot, lets this schism drag it into melodrama before the end.
In the beginning, however, it’s more like Oscar Wilde (who is liberally quoted) meets “Leave It to Beaver.” A nervous newbie, Jonathon, arrives at Chevalier d’Eon resort (named for a famed French transvestite and spy but soon to be rechristened Casa Valentina) and is taken under the comfortable wings of the cross-dressing proprietor’s tart but understanding wife, Rita, and a turbaned, wrapper-clad representative of the regulars, wise-cracking Bessie (a character Fierstein describes as “Willy Loman by day, Ethel Mertz at night”).
But with the arrival of Rita’s husband, George, also known as Valentina, it transpires that all is not whiskey and cookies at the retreat. George has been hauled in by the U.S. Postal Service for questioning regarding some pornographic mail, and chez Chevalier is on shaky financial ground as well. George’s hope for a financial bailout is LA-based magazine publisher and hetero-transvestite evangelist Charlotte, whose price turns out to be both surrender of privacy and formal denunciation by the straight guys in skirts of their gay brethren.
“Casa Valentina” does seem to exist in a bygone, pre-Stonewall era, its secretive aura a far cry from Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of “People” and “Transparent” on the TV. But it is far from a sad or particularly glamorous milieu. The world of the play is closer to summer camp (if the campers were all sprayed with wit, not Off) than to “La Cage aux Folles.” In fact, the second act opens on a homemade cabaret in which a trio lip-syncs to the McGuire Sisters against a backdrop of bedspreads. Moreover, several of the resort’s “inner circle” are in their 70s, including a rifle-toting judge described in his feminine guise by Fierstein as “a clumsy sort of ‘Tugboat Annie’ woman” — a characterization superbly lived up to, at SpeakEasy, by the great Timothy Crowe in tired, tight-curled wig and baggy house dress.
Indeed, the most compelling element of Scott Edmiston’s enthusiastic staging, ranged about Janie E. Howland’s rambling jumble of a set with graphic highlights, is the homey feel of its titular refuge, with its hostess in jeans, her weighed-upon husband in flounces and flowers. The scene in which the longer-established female personae transform the self-conscious Jonathon into an ebullient Miranda straight out of a 1960 prom is both amusing and touching. And though it’s easy to understand Fierstein’s desire to delve into deeper themes, I wish he had stuck to the polymorphous nature of identity and left the blackmail and fisticuffs out of it.
But the SpeakEasy cast is a strong one anchored by Crowe, who looks dowdy but whose Judge/Amy is a smoldering, conflicted force to be reckoned with, and by Thomas Derrah, struggling to keep his flamboyantly matronly Valentina from overwhelming his jaunty George, whose deep investments in his female persona and his marriage are inching toward a great divide. But the best lines (both Fierstein’s and Wilde’s), not to mention a key insight, go to sassy Robert Saoud as Bessie, a “decorated war veteran” with three kids, an auburn up-do and a deliciously smart mouth.
Kerry A. Dowling is well cast as the accommodating but aware Rita, a den mother who wants more of her den daddy than he is capable of giving. Eddie Shields easily wins the beauty contest as Gloria, the confident onetime Lothario nudging Valentina toward her truth. Gentle but hardly meek Greg Maraio brings both fear and newfound freedom to Jonathon, at first happily transformed into Miranda. And Sean McGuirk, as the elderly Terry, is a genteel reminder of an even more gender-locked past.
The accomplished Will McGarrahan has the most difficult role as divisive crusader Charlotte, whose passion to bring cross-dressing out of the shadows and into the mainstream hardly justifies her hate mongering or her tactics. Tellingly, despite the well-groomed blonde tresses and ladylike suit (not to mention the chiseled arms worthy of Michelle Obama), she is the play’s most masculine character. Whatever that says about a gender relegated to, as Charlotte asserts, “work, war, and oil changes,” you can well understand the need to break free.
Carolyn Clay was for many years the theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix. She is a past winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.
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