Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina Invites Guests to Explore the Girls Within

By Marc Acito
11 May 2014

Patrick Page
Patrick Page
Joan Marcus

Harvey Fierstein's first new play in nearly 30 years explores a real-life secret world that catered to "Mad Men"-type execs with a taste for "The Ladies Who Lunch."

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Take a look at the audience of any Broadway show. It's likely that no small amount of the women will be clad in pants; but it's even more likely than none of the men will sport skirts or dresses.

Playwright Harvey Fierstein may have discovered the reason why. His new play, Casa Valentina, his first in 27 years, examines a crucial turning point in gender politics, uncovering a piece of untold history that still effects us today.

Based on real events, Casa Valentina takes place in 1962 at a Catskills resort that caters to a unique clientele: Male cross-dressers. But while drag queens have played front and center on Broadway ever since Fierstein won Tonys for his groundbreaking play Torch Song Trilogy and the equally groundbreaking musical La Cage aux Folles, the men of Casa Valentina don't dress up to perform. Their shared goal is to express "the girl within," yet they aren't gay. Indeed the resort is run by a cross-dressing husband (Patrick Page) and his wife (Mare Winningham).

The dynamics of such a marriage is part of what motivated Fierstein to shed light on the subject. "When the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as an illness [in 1973], they also declassified homosexual transvestites," the playwright said. "But they did not declassify heterosexual transvestites." He laughed, a sound like a shovel being dragged along gravel. "It's almost as if they were saying, 'We don't expect any better from you people.'"

Dramatizing the psychology of straight men who wear women's clothes provides a number of richly nuanced roles for actors, including Gabriel Ebert (Tony winner for Matilda The Musical) and two-time Tony winner John Cullum.

"[They] have nothing in common," Fierstein said. "Not even the reason why they wear women's clothes."

Fierstein's own interest in women's clothes dates back to 1971, when, as a fledgling 16-year-old actor, he responded to an open call for a play at La MaMa called Pork, written by Andy Warhol. "I was so out of my element," he recalled. Still, Warhol saw something special in the art student, choosing him as the only person from that open call. For his one and only play, Warhol cast Fierstein as an asthmatic lesbian maid.



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