Harvey Fierstein’s CASA VALENTINA (@ SpeakEasy Stage through Nov. 28th) shines a big bright light on a group of men who, Fierstein himself points out, are not included under the LGBT umbrella. The “T” in LGBT stands for transsexual not for transvestite. Why the oversight? Perhaps it’s because transvestites are not generally in “the public eye” and certainly it’s because most people don’t understand what the term means.
An old suitcase full of photos of heterosexual, cross dressing men at a resort in the Catskills first inspired a book in 2005 and Fierstein’s play in 2014. These were men with wives and families who yearned to express “the girl within.” One resort offered transvestites a safe haven for cross dressing while most of the hotels like Grossinger’s and the Nevele spawned a slew of entertainers who cross dressed for laughs, not for life.
Anyone over 50 can remember Milton Berle in drag. A little later Jonathan Winters and Johnnie Carson carried the mantle. Society readily accepted cross dressing in heterosexual males for entertainment purposes but not many, even today, think beyond the humor. Many people assume that “drag” is the bailiwick of homosexuals or that it’s “punishment” for children who misbehave. One of Fierstein’s characters recalls the practice of “petticoating” in the military as public humiliation.
It certainly was in my grammar school. Our sadistic third grade teacher, whose name thankfully I have repressed, used to dress boys in women’s clothes and making them walk around the class if they weren’t paying attention. But Fierstein’s play, I think, is intended mostly to fill in the gaps in our knowledge about heterosexual cross dressing and to celebrate its pioneers (in much the same way that gay plays celebrate the pioneers of the gay rights movement).
Here’s my difficulty with the script. I think the play is supposed to be a sympathetic picture of these men who did risk substantial loss if their wives or bosses discovered their secret—but Fierstein places such revulsion for homosexuals in their dialogue, that I couldn’t see beyond the hatred (except for the one character who stood up to the bigots). And I’m very sorry to say I couldn’t “willingly suspend my disbelief” when too many holes in the script sank that willingness.
SPOILER ALERT. Are we really to believe that the FBI works out of rural post offices? (I’m inclined to think the FBI is just there to set up a joke about J. Edgar Hoover.) Are we to believe an informant listens in on everyone’s phone taps? Doesn’t that take up all of his time? What about a character, who will fiercely protect his right to privacy, going to an emergency room still dressed in women’s clothes… when his friend who doesn’t mind people knowing, makes a big deal about changing his? What about a wife who overhears something of vital importance and doesn’t ask her husband why he didn’t tell her? Etc. etc.
Director Scott Edmiston has a stellar cast to inhabit Fierstein’s characters and the actors all seem comfortable (or uncomfortable on purpose) in their roles, so I shall laud their collective effort in service of what I consider a deeply flawed and disturbing script.