"Casa Valentina," Harvey Fierstein's 2014 Tony-nominated play, couldn't have found more trustworthy hands than those of director David Lee.
The West Coast premiere took place Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse, and Lee's production is an absolute marvel of lucid storytelling. The acting ensemble overflows with camaraderie, and the design vividly conjures the unique milieu of the play.
Kate Bergh's costumes play an especially prominent role. "Casa Valentina" explores a community of cross-dressers at a bungalow colony in the Catskills in 1962 that has been set up to provide a haven for those men dying to slip into something a little more flouncy and frilly.
These fellows aren't drag queens or transsexuals. Most are married heterosexuals who occupy respectable positions in mainstream society, but each feels a compulsion to set free the woman lurking inside of him.
Putting on makeup and fixing a wig aren't for them superficial exercises in theatrical role-playing. Their elaborate primping represents a courageous assertion of identity. Public morality, after all, isn't on their side, and the laws against cross-dressing are still on the books. Careful discretion has been ingrained in their conduct. But their feminine alter egos won't be suppressed.
The goal when sitting around this eccentric hideaway isn't to stand out. "The more you look as if you just stepped away from a bridge table, the higher we grade you," Bessie (Raymond McAnally), a wisecracking regular at the resort, tells nervous newcomer Jonathon (James Snyder). "Passing undetected is our zenith."
Bessie, known to family and coworkers as Albert (a decorated war hero with a portly build), wears a housecoat and turban when helping Jonathon unpack. She approves when Jonathon tells her that Miranda will be his new name, chosen from Shakespeare's "The Tempest," his father's favorite play.
George (Robert Mammana), known as Valentina when in feminine garb, runs this Shangri-La for transvestites with his wife, Rita (Valerie Mahaffey), a "GG" or "genetic girl," who is the kindhearted caretaker here. Rita prepares meals and offers soft words of encouragement to anxious guests while operating a wig business that is quite convenient for visitors who love nothing more than doing makeovers on one another.
When Jonathon makes his first appearance as Miranda, the effect isn't what he hopes. But the girls band together with their kits and know-how to help Miranda flower.
Terry (Lawrence Pressman), styled like a favorite old gift-bearing aunt, offers a pair of falsies. Rita works her magic on the wig. Valentina tackles the eyes and, following orders from stud-like Gloria (Mark Jude Sullivan), the eyebrows. Bessie fires off Oscar Wilde-inspired quips. (Of plucking, Bessie indelibly says, "What begins with a tweezer oft ends with a lawn-mower.")
Fierstein, author of "Torch Song Trilogy" and the books for the musicals "Kinky Boots" and "La Cage aux Folles," knows a thing or two about men and drag. (His portrayal of mountainous hausfrau Edna Turnblad in the musical "Hairspray" wasn't the first time he won a Tony for wearing a dress.) He keeps the banter sharp and shimmering here, though he has more on his mind than jokes about cosmetic prosthetics.
There's a brewing crisis in this rustic sanctuary, which scenic designer Tom Buderwitz brings to life on a rotating bed-and-breakfast set that is placed against a backdrop of storybook tress. Not only is George's business facing bankruptcy but he's under federal investigation after a packet containing pornographic images for a guest was opened by postal authorities.
Rita wants George to ask for legal advice from his old friend the judge when he shows up as Amy (John Vickery), but George is more concerned with making a good impression on Charlotte (Christian Clemenson). She's a formidable activist from California who has started the Sorority, a nonprofit organization offering legitimacy to cross-dressers and the chance to make public their "plight as minorities."
Charlotte has asked Valentina to head an East Coast chapter of the Sorority, and she wants the other guests to give up their anonymity and enlist in her cause. Amy, nearing retirement, immediately resists for fear of losing job benefits were the judge's identity to be exposed.
A heated political debate ensues. Charlotte insists that members sign an affidavit swearing that they are not homosexual, as in Charlotte's mind it is the wrongful association of homosexuality that is holding normal, red-blooded American cross-dressers back from wider public acceptance.
This discussion seemed obtrusive when I saw the Broadway premiere of "Casa Valentina" at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, and some of the plot mechanics involved in this part of the story made a clumsy first impression. (That packet of pornographic materials turns out to give Charlotte some unexpected leverage.)
But Lee exercises a light touch when Fierstein's writing grows heavy-handed, and I was more focused on the richly inhabited personal dynamics among the characters this time around. The cast members paint distinctive presences, highlighting their characters' joy in stolen moments of community and fear of further alienation.
It's a credit to Fierstein's capaciously compassionate playwriting that the most moving character in the play is Rita, who is caught between her love and loyalty to her husband, George, and her growing awareness that the other woman in his life (his alter ego Valentina) is one she will never be able to compete with.
Mahaffey brings an emotional rawness to her portrayal of a woman who sees that complete acceptance may not be enough to save her marriage. Mammana allows us glimpses of George's selfishness in his marital relationship without completely turning us against him.
Snyder's fretful innocence as Jonathon, Clemenson's brisk authority as Charlotte, Vickery's judicious watchfulness as Amy, Pressman's mature matronliness as Terry, Sullivan's vigorous self-possession as Gloria and, most delightful of all, McAnally's unstoppable drollery as Bessie combine in marvelous ways to create a powerful human drama.
There's no greater compliment I can pay these actors than to say that the clothes each of them puts on reveal both the man and the woman precariously coexisting in a world that imposes harsh penalties for gender freedom and fluidity.