I suspect the man and woman who walked out of “Casa Valentina” at intermission Thursday wanted playwright Harvey Fierstein to supply the warm-hearted vibes of “Newsies,” “Kinky Boots” or even “La Cage Aux Folles.”
But this play, now getting its regional premiere from Queen City Theatre Company, stretches back to the Fierstein of “Torch Song Trilogy” 34 years ago. And I suspect it closed on Broadway after two months in 2014 not because it was dramatically weak – it isn’t – but because its dark, bitter streak leaves us with more mixed feelings than “Trilogy.”
Unlike Arnold Beckoff, an openly gay single man raising a gay teenager in “Trilogy,” cross-dressing characters in “Valentina” don’t know what they want. They struggle not only with their own identities but with the way they present themselves to the world – or, more frequently, conceal themselves. The ending leaves us at sea, contemplating a situation 20 years before “Trilogy” that may make almost nobody happy.
Fierstein took the story from life. A Catskills resort invited men (most of them reportedly heterosexual) to dress, make up and behave like women in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
The playwright read the book “Casa Susanna” by Michel Hurst and Robert Swope and called his version “Casa Valentina,” after the alter ego of married innkeeper George (Kristian Wedolowski).
Fierstein introduces newcomer Jonathan (Berry Newkirk) into the mix of veterans, giving them a chance to explain the ropes. His friend Michael (Steven Martin), aka Gloria, seems quite at home with flamboyant Bessie (Matt Kenyon), wise elder Terry (Christopher Jones) and easygoing Amy, a judge in the outside world (Matthew Corbett).
Then zealot Charlotte (Joe Rux) barges in. She publishes a magazine aimed at removing the stigma of transvestism and wants support from her new friends. She draws a line between cross-dressers and homosexuals, who disgust her and muddy the waters of public perception, and she’s not above blackmail to get backing.
Glenn Griffin directs (and once misdirects us to spring a surprise) with an eye for tension. These men constantly say how free and happy they feel here, yet there’s an undercurrent of anxiety. We learn why when the judge’s daughter (Amanda Liles) reveals the fallout from his actions.
In a way, the central character is the play’s only other woman: Rita (Barbi Van Shaick), who married George and learned to accommodate Valentina. She provides the final, ambiguous image in each act, sitting alone in the living room of a two-tiered set more opulent than usual for Duke Energy Theater. (Kudos to designer Tim Baxter-Ferguson).
Rita represents the outside world – in other words, most of us. With the best will in the world, she can’t fully understand George. Does her husband, who goes to bars dressed as a woman, seek sexual attention from men? (He says not.) Is he really “married” to Valentina, because “she” knows his deepest thoughts and desires? If he had to choose Valentina or Rita, what would he do?
Fierstein leaves many characters’ fates hanging. Some disappear; some go back to lives of self-suppression, some to lives of wanted or unwanted exposure. In a way, that makes the resolution stronger: If these people don’t all know where they’re headed, he’s not going to tell us.