Far and away, the most effortlessly feminine facsimile to be found in Casa Valentina April 23 at the Samuel J. Friedman is Reed Birney. No contest. He is the fairest of the not-so-fair at this Catskills home-away-from-home for the committed cross-dresser.
Crowned with a Bette Davis bird-nest 'do, puffing cigarettes incessantly and speaking with sharp assurance (rightly or wrongly) about everything, Birney pretty much rules the roost here, where transvestites assembled in the '60s for long, lost weekends of drinking, dining, dancing, playing cards, lip-synching the McGuire Sisters and, most of all, passing for female among their sister peers. Calling himself Charlotte (after "Hush... Hush, Sweet..." maybe?), he's in an advanced state of grand.
"I'm a little surprised myself," the actor confessed a bit sheepishly at the after-party held across the street from the Friedman at the Copacabana, "but it's exactly what you want as an actor where something magical happens like that. I don't quite know where Charlotte comes from in me, but she's really fun. Even at my audition — I put myself on tape in Boston last fall when I was doing All The Way up there — I just got her right away. I didn't have a wig or makeup or anything, but I knew who she was."
Getting used to gussying up was quite an experience for the guys, according to Birney. "We all had a very interesting experience when we put on our wigs and dresses and high heels for the first time. We each had our own sort of individual thing. I thought I was going to pass out. It does change you — in very real, subtle ways — so you don't have to act it. And that's something our director, Joe Mantello, said, which was very smart from the beginning. Our first two days of rehearsal were just kind of Femininity Boot Camp, and we realized, when we have this new bonding place to go to, there's no reason to act anything. The clothes and the wigs and everything — they do a lot of the work for us." By any other name, Charlotte is Virginia French, "a pioneer transvestite-militant performer, traveling around the country to Rotary groups dressed as a woman full time, explaining we're like everybody else — not gay, not all the things you think of us — just regular guys who happen to like to wear women's clothes."
Names have been changed to protect the vaguely tarnished, but Fierstein correctly identifies the place where they hung out half a century ago in his play proper. Casa Valentina is really Chevalier d'Eon, named for Charles-Genevieve-Louis-Auguste-Andre-Timothee-d'Eon de Beaumont, a 17th-century gender-bender who spent his first 49 years as a man and his last 33 years as a woman.
"I tell this story in the play," said Fierstein. "As a man, he was a soldier and diplomat. As a woman, she was a spy — so effective a spy she got exiled from France. The King said, 'You can return to France only if you stop dressing as a boy and just wear girl clothes' — he even paid for her wardrobe — so she came back to France and lived the rest of her life as a woman. Only when she died did they discover she was a he. "So these transvestites named their resort and their publishing company after her." Casa Valentina is a return to form for Fierstein — his first straight play (pardon the expression) since his week-long Safe Sex back in 1987. He began as a Tony-winning playwright with Torch Song Trilogy in 1982 and, somewhere along the line, turned into a Tony-winning musical-book writer. Right now, he's steady and holding with a half-dozen Tonys, and, and he is currently represented on the Main Stem with his Tony-nominated adaptations of Newsies and Kinky Boots.
His two acting Tonys were for playing a drag queen (Arnold Beckoff in Torch Song Trilogy) and an actual woman (Edna Turnblad in Hairspray). The characters populating his Casa Valentina fall between the cracks of those two performances.
"The truth is, I wasn't all that interested in heterosexual transvestites," Fierstein admitted, "but, when I started reading their writings, something really struck me. "Our community includes gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, true spirit — everyone, right? — but not heterosexual transvestites. What grabbed me was: Why did they get cut out of our world? Why aren't they part of our struggle? We get rights. They don't.
"In the '70s when The American Psychiatric Society declassified homosexuality as a disease, it also declassified homosexual cross-dressing as a disease — but heterosexual cross-dressing is still considered a disease. Why would that be? We're all just human beings. So I did some digging and found that in 1962 this decision was made by the leaders of that community to ban homosexuals, cross-dressers, transgender people and clothing fetishists. They believed society would never accept homosexuals or transgender people, but, if they realized all we do is dress up and express our love of women and we're all heterosexual children, then they would accept us and it'd become absolutely acceptable and normal to be a transvestite."
The play that grew out of this research is Fierstein's attempt to throw a spotlight on a heretofore invisible minority. The seven who show up for the resort's staid, tame fun 'n' games, all straight and laced, make quite a group shot. For all their feminine fuss 'n' feathers, they pride themselves in their heterosexuality and are understandably alarmed to learn one of their number is — how did he ever get in? — a genuine gay.
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Genuine girls — "G.G.s" — are permitted on the premises (two, anyway), and, although the roles played by Lisa Emery and Mare Winningham are small and secondary, the playwright has packed both of them with enough emotional explosives to blow the guys out of the water — or, at least, out of their selfish, indulgent complacency.
Winningham, who nabbed a Featured Actress nomination from the Outer Critics Circle earlier this week for her work as Rita here, runs this resort of the last resorts with her husband (George by day/Valentina by night, both played by Patrick Page).
"It was his dream to open a safe haven for cross-dressers," she explained, "so I approach this with a very open mind and open heart, but there are challenges to all aspects of a marriage. I must say, though, as a couple, they are The Holy Grail of the cross-dressing couples, and all of the other people at the resort admire their marriage because it's been an open marriage about this from the beginning since the day we met.
"Harvey built this play beautifully. Halfway through, you may wonder, 'Is Rita just receding?' She seems to be someone who's losing something, and then — wow! He gives those last two scenes to her. Her pain is fully revealed, and so is her strength."
Page, who flew wildly hither and yon as The Green Goblin in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, owned up to some trouble negotiating his way across the room in high heels. "I've never worn heels. I tried to wear them once to a Halloween party, and I fell right off of them and ended up wearing combat boots, so I really had to work on walking in women's shoes. Anything that one does on stage — there are going to be people in the audience who do it for real. I don't smoke, so if I had to smoke on stage, I'd have to take it up for some time in order to be convincing as a smoker. Otherwise, smokers in the audience would go, 'Oh, he doesn't know how to smoke.'" As proprietor of the place, Page looms much like the lead because he's either running the show or at the center of the action. "The inner circle is really getting together on this weekend to codify what they are and to make some rules and to go public in a way. At least that's Valentina's desire and Charlotte's desire — but they come up with some resistance from other members of the group. Remember: It's 1962, and all of these men are heterosexual men with families, jobs, careers, and some of them are not too keen about having their names published anywhere."
At 84, John Cullum can still steal scenes and focus from the best of 'em. He plays Terry, the eldest of the transvestites, and his presence on that stage brings much dignity to the enterprise (as it did to Urinetown before it become a Tony winner).
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
"It's a role, as far as I'm concerned — because these people are role-playing," Cullum shrugged. "I feel like I've trained 50 years to do this kind of play. I hate to say it's just another role because it's a different kind of role. I don't usually wear skirts and wigs.
"I wanted to play it because of the language — it was wonderfully written — and because of the conflicts that were involved, not just because we were transvestites but because — well, imagine the conflicts that go on in Congress between different people. You don't know their backgrounds, but they're congressmen, and they're supposed to act one way. There's a certain solidarity. That's the same thing that unites us as a community in the Catskills where we come, but there is also human elements that make for conflict. So it has plot, action and drama. It evokes pity and anguish or empathy, just like any other drama.
"I play an older character who has been a transvestite since he was young, but it was secret, and he didn't really find out that there were other people like him until he was 18 or 19 years old. The only people he could open up to were homosexuals, and, of course, he's not a homosexual. He's a heterosexual but a cross-dresser, and he's not a performer in the sense of drag queens and that sort of thing. None of the people in the play are like that. Most of them have families, and they're all straight."
Larry Pine, a mighty oak you wouldn't expect to find in black lace, admitted he didn't knock himself out in the transformation department. "I don't do eyes and all the other stuff. I didn't really go into all that, and that's a choice because my character hides. If he's going to dress up, it's just lipstick and a wig." Period, apparently.
Lisa Emery, who plays Pine's daughter, pays a late, mood-altering visit to the resort and punctures everybody's balloon, then departs. "I represent a different point of view," she explained. "That's really my job in the play, and I get it. I get how really crushing that could be to a young girl growing up. Hearing those things about her father, maybe hearing her parents fighting, him never being there on the weekend. "It took me a long time to not be afraid to be so unfriendly, but the hard part comes in waiting two hours before you go on. That's hard. The stuff that I do has to be really limited. It's not like I can sit and watch episodes of Louis CK. I have to stay focused, but I can't not do anything, so I read and do the crossword puzzle. What I do is I sit down for about 30 seconds and get very angry, then throw it away and go on stage."
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Nick Westrate plays the youngest of the transvestites. "I'm Michael-slash-Gloria, the little more modern, forward-thinking member of the group. I like to say Gloria is the pretty one." He's been told he looks like Eve Arden, but it's really Janis Paige.
"It's real inspiring to play jazz with these guys every night. You just have to try to be as truthful as whoever is standing next to you. When you're standing next to John Cullum, that's a tall task. Everyone's incredible. It's an incredible company of people and such an honor to be included with them. It's a great sorority. We have so much fun together. We make each other laugh like crazy. I'm having such a good time."
Tom McGowan, who's in the process of switching coasts, landed the role Fierstein originally wrote for himself (Albert/Bessie). "He started developing Bessie for himself and then, early on in the process, decided he wasn't going to play it so I was the beneficiary of that. I feel very lucky to be a part of it. It's such a great group, and Joe Mantello's a wonderful director. Harvey described the character as 'Willie Loman by day and Ethel Mertz by night,' which was all I needed to start reading the play."
The character, having done his dissertation on Oscar Wilde, gingerly sprinkles Wilde witticisms through the play. "At one point, I had 12, but I think I'm left with five or six."
Gabriel Ebert flashes a fresh-faced innocence as the casa's first-time client, trying to fit in with all the other misfits, making his maiden voyage as a dolled-up woman in front of them. (She's stopped at the first pit-stop for an immediate makeover.) Ebert executes his role so charmingly that you forget he just won a Tony as Matilda's indifferent and abusive dad. "Now, I play the abused child. It's come full circle.
"I get to go through a huge arc in this play, which is frightening, but it's exciting to be able to play such innocence and such exaltation and such heartbreak. It's a big arc every night. The audience comes in through my character and enters this world through my eyes. I feel if I do my job right, I can take the audience on that journey.
"I'm Jonathan, this young gun who comes in, and he has never dressed in public before with anyone else, and his relationship to it is sorta filled with shame in his basement. When his wife is away for a safe amount of time, he dresses and stays in the basement so that no one sees him through the windows upstairs. This weekend is filled with terror for him but also exaltation as he comes to release Miranda, the inner woman that he has, in a room with other people. That requires a leap of faith."
Ebert is the recipient of the one kiss in the play, and he said the guy was a good kisser. "Day One, he went right for it. I said, 'Well, all right, here we go.' Why not? We're in dresses. Let's go for it.'