'Casa Valentina' Review: A Potentially Illuminating Play Falls Short
It’s no secret that Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina is based on the real “Casa Susanna,” a 1950’s resort in the Catskills where men dressed like women in safety. I emphasize that the men are heterosexuals, and while I admit I find that surprising, I’m not suggesting that they should be gay. The real problem is that the play is a missed opportunity. Casa Valentina could potentially offer interesting commentary on the subject of why certain heterosexual men in the 1950’s felt the need to cross dress, but it’s never fully explored due to a sloppy plot and boring, superficial set pieces.
Casa Valentina is a sanctuary hidden away in the Catskills for heterosexual men to live out their fantasies of being transvestites. It’s a place for the men who need to get away from their wives and children and get into wigs and heels. Our story begins with George (Patrick Page) who runs the titular resort with his supportive wife Rita (Mare Winningham). The place is anything but ritzy. The decor is shabby and the furniture is old, which hints that the place isn’t making any money and could soon go bankrupt (extremely subtle foreshadowing?). Director Joe Montello gets credit for his creative team; everything from set design to costume design is impressive and spot on.
Things finally start moving along when the first guest arrives to Casa Valentina. Enter Jonathan (Gabriel Ebert), who walks about with a sense of self-consciousness and curiosity as he gives in to his impulses to dress in women’s clothes. Let’s pause for a minute: does this scene suggest the play might teach us why a straight man would want to dress like a woman? Yes. Does it? No. Instead we get the rest of the cross dressers coming out to give the awkward Jonathan a makeover. Welcome to the club Jonathan! He expresses his excitement by jumping up and down in front of the mirror. It’s these kind of superficial set pieces that really bog down the experience and makes Casa Valentina unintelligible.
Of course there’s more to the roster of transvestites, but they’re painfully clichéd. For example, we have the humongous Bessie (Tom McGowen) who resembles a clown because of her intentionally hideous outfits. Although I assumed she would provide comic interjections, her lines are intolerably unfunny. That’s just one example of how these characters feel misplaced.
One particularly disappointing character is Charlotte (Reed Birney), who manages to make the men, at the very least, question their sexuality. However, the play only manages to dance around the subject. It’s very clear that Fierstein’s only intention was to create a scenario where, ideally, audiences would be amused by watching men dress in drag and run around stage. But even if Fierstein didn’t intend to provide compelling insight on cross-dressing, the messy plot makes Casa Valentina devoid of fun and engaging experiences.