Casa Valentina opened this week after a few weeks of previews, at the Samuel J Friedman Theatre (Manhattan Theatre Club). It’s been nominated for Best Play for the 2014 Tony Awards (the nominations came out a couple of days ago).
I saw it from the mezzanine, at a midweek matinee. Many of the people sitting near me turned out to be very frequent Broadway theatregoers attending alone. “I just couldn’t live anywhere else!” “These plays would close if it weren’t for women in the audience, and women writing cheques!” Some of them had opera glasses like my grandmother’s. They gave me lots of recommendations and heads-ups about what else to see, where to sit for various performances, and so on.
Casa Valentina is set in 1962 at a rustic resort in the Catskills, a safe meetup spot for cross-dressing men to spend a weekend living as their “girls within”. The resort is run by George (Patrick Page) and his wife Rita (Mare Winningham, also nominated for a Tony). George’s alter ego is Valentina. During the play we hear that George and Rita’s marriage, the second for both, is unusual in that Rita not only knows about George’s cross-dressing but accepts it. In an endearing scene early on, we see Rita (who runs a wig store too) helping George prepare for his transformation to Valentina to greet the guests.
The other visitors have families who don’t know or families who know but don’t accept. The visiting activist who has served time in jail for cross-dressing (Reed Birney as Charlotte) urges them to go public, but also to improve their group’s chances of being accepted by signing affidavits to say that they are neither drag queens or homo-sexuals. The anti-queer sentiments that he expresses assuming that they will be shared by the other characters had the 2014 audience gasping and hissing, until the line “Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking.” at which we all cracked up laughing. Genius.
There was also lots of audible audience sentiment (but of the “awww” kind) directed towards Jonathon/Miranda (Gabriel Ebert), a young high school teacher making a first visit to the resort and a first outing in women’s clothing outside of the basement at home. He explains that his wife found it hilarious when he tried on her wedding gown on their honeymoon, but he didn’t think she’d laugh more than once so he never told her or showed her again. And the transformation from Jonathan to Miranda when Miranda appears for dinner isn’t nearly as impressive as Miranda’s subsequent makeover with the help of the other characters, from an awkward ashamed young woman in shapeless dress and limp shoulder-length straight hair, to a delighted fashionable confident young woman and the centre of attention.
I loved the set design for this play. It created the impression of an old-fashioned resort with weathered wood, porches and decks and lots of stairs. It also created the impression of lots of cozy small rooms for the guests, using some shifting staircases, the hints of eaves, and lighting on four or five mismatched dressing tables in different corners (because of course the important thing about the bedrooms at this resort isn’t as places to sleep, but as places to get dressed up and made up).
This play is making me think about a different side of LGBTQ history, but also about how oppressed and threatened people can isolate themselves from other marginalised people in an attempt to be accepted, and why that’s problematic.