There’s much warmth and humor, but only so much depth, in Harvey Fierstein’s entertaining new play, Casa Valentina, now playing at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre as part of Manhattan Theatre Club’s current season. Centered around a typically atypical weekend in 1962 at the weekend resort of the play’s title, which caters (mostly) to heterosexual men in drag, Fierstein’s new play bubbles on the surface thanks to the playwright’s signature wit but ultimately fails to track its characters’ journeys satisfactorily as it nears it conclusion.
As the play begins, a new guest, Jonathan (Gabriel Ebert) — a.k.a. Miranda — is arriving at the resort. He’s greeted by Rita (Mare Winningham), a typical housewife on the surface whose husband, George (Patrick Page), also goes by the name Valentina. As Jonathan finds his footing within the group, George struggles with the authorities. You see, on the morning of Jonathan’s arrival, George was called in to the local post office to be questioned about some pornographic photos that were sent to him to pass along to another unnamed guest of the resort.
George leaves the meeting rather flustered and increasingly unsure of the safety of his thriving weekend community, especially since he’s entertaining a special guest, Charlotte (Reed Birney), this weekend, who has incorporated the group officially and wants, with George’s help, to bring the plight of the transvestite community (including the identities of the group’s members) into the light. The group’s reaction provides the crux of the play’s payoff, but there are too many competing plot lines vying for attention to turn the play — which is full of lively, conversation-starting ideas — into something truly transcendent.
As George, who’s truly the matriarch of the group, Patrick Page shines. Displaying his signature resonant voice, Page tackles his character’s struggle to excel both as a loving husband to Rita and as mother hen to her brood of cross-dressing friends. Similarly winning are Gabriel Ebert as Jonathan/Miranda, Tom McGowan as Bessie (the group’s self-appointed one-woman welcome brigade, a role peppered with one-liners that’d be perfectly-suited to Fierstein’s talents should he ever come on as a replacement), Nick Westrate as Gloria (one of the youngest of the bunch), and John Cullum as Terry, the eldest of the group and the one who most vocally defies Charlotte’s homophobic notions of what their band of misfits ought to be. Larry Pine is also excellent as Amy, who’s a Judge by day and who ends up, thanks to revelations about his character, playing a major part in the play’s climax.
Just as we begin to think the Judge’s story will become the dominant thread of the play, however, George and Rita’s relationship takes the forefront, leaving the Judge’s plot line unresolved by the evening’s end rather frustratingly. These script problems are unlike Harvey Fierstein’s typically A-level work. As a book writer of musicals like Kinky Boots, Newsies, and La Cage aux Folles, he’s mastered the art of plot structure, but here it seems the lessons he’s learned from his work on musicals have been put aside in the favor of a messy, sprawling, fun, but ultimately flawed canvas.
Nevertheless, director Joe Mantello keeps the play moving nimbly forward and highlights the comedy of Fierstein’s play. Scott Pask’s scenic design is clean and aesthetically pleasing, and the cast is game for the play’s daunting acting challenges. The ultimate charm and the secret ingredient of Casa Valentina is its premise (which is based on a real-life place, chronicled in the book Casa Susanna). Though, in the play’s final moments, we really come to understand, at least in George’s case, these heterosexual men’s fascination — compulsion, even — to dress up as women and attempt to “pass” in society, this exploration is oddly lacking from much of the play’s first three-quarters, where the situation is taken for granted rather than exploited for its myriad of possibilities. It’s the narrow margin between what might have been and what’s onstage here that ultimately disappoints; it’s clear that Mr. Fierstein is a wonderful writer and thinker, but this play, which would have benefitted from an additional draft or two to work out the kinks, represents the rough outline of what has the potential to be something truly genius.