Leave it to Harvey Fierstein to be the leader of a very ignored minority group. No, not the heterosexual transvestites of his new play, “Casa Valentina,” which opened Wednesday at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The real underdogs he champions here are people who are happily married to themselves! Talk about marriage equality!
Millions of singles who are sick and tired of being told they are only half complete will applaud what Fierstein has written. And with married couples sometimes squandering thousands of dollars to conceive offspring, Fierstein even gives us our rallying cry, “I think we made the right decision not to have children.” That line in “Casa Valentina” gets the biggest laugh/applause line of the night.
It’s difficult to say what heterosexual transvestites will think of “Casa Valentina,” set in a 1960s Catskills resort that caters to straight men who like to wear their wives’ outfits. They may flock to the play, turn it into their “Boys in the Band,” which they then despise for a few decades before they learn to love it or just plain forget about it.
“Boys” playwright Mart Crowley always said that the line “Show me a happy homosexual and I’ll show you a gay corpse” was taken out of context.
In that spirit, here’s a line taken out of context from “Casa Valentina” and delivered by Bessie (Tom McGowan), one of Fierstein’s straight transvestites: “I am, I dare say, my own perfect spouse. And we are the perfect couple.”
Later in the play, a wife (Mare Winningham) repeats this line to her transvestite husband (Patrick Page), who is named Valentina: “Last night Bessie was talking about the perfect marriage she has with herself, and it suddenly made complete sense. There’s no space between you and Valentina….No matter how intimate you and I are, it’s nothing compared to how close you and she are. I’ll always be an outsider because you are the perfect couple.”
In the Playbill, Fierstein tells us not to call his characters “drag queens” or “female impersonators.” And that’s not the end of his sermonizing.
Heterosexual transvestites is a novel subject, even for Broadway, although the film “Ed Wood” handled it 20 years ago with slyer humor and far less preaching. Tim Burton‘s movie was about many things, and it succeeded, in part, because Burton kept that flashiest element of Wood’s persona slightly off center. “Casa Valentina,” on the other hand, is about two things: Very stage center are the heterosexual transvestites, and off stage are the homosexual transvestites some of these cross-dressing men want to exclude from their sorority.
It’s never a pleasant spectacle when two minority groups fight it out for the bottom position on the totem pole of victimhood. Martin Sherman does something similar in his play “Bent.” Who had it worse in Nazi concentration camps, Jews or gays? Do we really need these kinds of debates?
John Cullum plays a dowager who calls herself Terry. There’s not a hint of a camp in his remarkable performance. Terry objects to those in their sorority who want to exclude homosexuals, since it is homosexuals who often welcomed him to their drag balls “and never once. Not once came on to me!”
Really, never once? What’s so awful if one of those gay guys in a dress came on to this straight man in a dress? That’s why the words “No thank you” were invented. But Fierstein keeps stacking the deck (no pun intended) to keep his victims and his villains totally separate.
From “La Cage aux Folles” to “Kinky Boots,” Fierstein has created some very sympathetic hero-victims. With “Casa Valentina,” those victims are looking more pathetic than sympathetic. He’s the master of the long, bigoted diatribe that helps make the audience feel superior but leaves the poor character who’s the object of all this verbal abuse simply battered and abused.
There’s much more nuance in Joe Mantello’s direction of his actors, although even he doesn’t succeed in softening Fierstein’s sledgehammer when, late in the play, a transvestite’s daughter (Lisa Emery) arrives to tell off the owners of the Catskills resort.
In one important respect, the bad guys do get their day in “Casa Valentina.” Reed Birney plays the sorority leader Charlotte who will stop at nothing to keep homosexuals out of the club. Like Cullum, Birney handles the makeup, the wig and pearls with great feminine grace, and Fierstein, in top form, gives him a long, withering speech that slowly skewers one of the other sisters. You know Charlotte’s evil early in the play because she smokes more than Bette Davis or Joan Crawford ever did. With even less effort than those two movie vets, Birney shows why being bad in the theater is the best thing in the world.