When Casa Valentina premiered on Broadway last year, it garnered four Tony nominations and numerous critical accolades. Seeing its regional theater premiere at GableStage, it’s hard to comprehend why.
Harvey Fierstein’s first play in nearly 30 years examines the laughter, drama and gender crises of a community of heterosexual male cross-dressers, circa 1962. Shedding the male personas of their married lives, these “self-made women” gather for weekend retreats at a discrete bungalow in New York State run by a fellow “fempersonating” traveler, George/Valentina (Wayne LeGette) and his extraordinarily accepting wife, Rita (Irene Adjan). Shortly after the play begins, we learn that the chalet is pending federal investigation after a cache of gay pornography was intercepted en route to a guest.
Charlotte (Kevin Reilley), the publisher of a proto-trans magazine and a figure of importance in the community, descends on the casa with a plan: Go public and ensure the world that there are no homosexuals—god forbid—in their perfectly healthy midst. That way, the members of this secret society will finally be accepted as women because, as Valentina puts it, “passing undetected is our zenith.”
The resort, which Fierstein based on the real-life Chevalier d’Eon Resort, happens to be set in the Catskill Mountains, and much of the show’s humor is saturated in facile, Borscht Belt humor: “Commoners drink to excess; I drink to access,” says the buxom Bessie (Roland Rusinek, channeling Nathan Lane), the show’s foremost comic relief. Later, she adds, “Men’s clothing is the … equivalent of Mexican food: eight ingredients served 75 ways.” These one-liners contain everything but a rim shot and a laugh track. Even when Casa Valentina strains at seriousness by exploring the latent homophobic prejudices of a group that should know better, the characters rarely function as organic people—male or female.
And it’s not just Fierstein’s didactic writing that hamstrings the production. It’s also the patchy casting and uneven acting. Yes, the actors only had one preview performance, and yes, this is an ambitious mounting with nine actors, seven of whom required fittings for clothing of the opposite sex. But this may be the first time in my many years of covering GableStage opening nights that the show didn’t feel “ready.” The amount of distracting line fumbles—noticeably from Rusinek, Reilley, and Adjan—must have entered the double digits. Reilley’s difficulty at completing his character’s arduous monologues in one piece is compounded by his arch and unsubtle performance, his character’s villainy so obvious that you can imagine him fiendishly stroking a pussycat between lines.
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Standouts include an all-but-unrecognizable Cliff Burgess as the youngest, chicest Casa Valentina regular, possessing a casual self-confidence and the ability to make cigarette smoking look sexy again. As Jonathan, the resort’s uptight new visitor, Ryan Didato is responsible for the play’s emotional core; his self-actualizing transformation into “Miranda” is the production’s most touching moment. Ellis Tillman, GableStage’s consummate costume designer, meets the challenge of fitting a closetful of women’s frocks, wigs and jewelry onto men who have presumably never worn bras and booty boosters: They all look distinctive, with attire that speaks to their characters.
This show will certainly have its champions, but I’m not one of them. Considering GableStage’s specialty in cutting-edge theater, Casa Valentina seems off-brand. Where the company’s best dramas seethe with intensity and its best comedies lacerate with wit, this play succeeds as neither.
Casa Valentina runs through June 28 at GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. Tickets cost $40-$55. Call 866-811-4111 or visit gablestage.org.