Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Casa Valentina (revisited) ***

When the opportunity to attend opening night arose unexpectedly, I decided to pay a return visit to see how the play had changed since I saw an early preview 2 1/2 weeks ago. Here's what I had to say the first time around:

For Harvey Fierstein to have three plays running on Broadway simultaneously is quite an achievement, but in this instance the third time is not a charm. His first non-musical (I dare not say "straight" play) in decades, now in previews at Manhattan Theatre Club, has a lot going for it, especially an outstanding cast and an intriguing fact-inspired premise. In the early 60's there was a resort colony in the Catskills that catered to the needs of married heterosexual transvestites. To see such New York theater stalwarts as Patrick Page (George/Valentina), Reed Birney (Charlotte), John Cullum (Terry) and Larry Pine (The Judge/Amy) in full drag is an experience not soon to be forgotten. (Birney's Charlotte bears an uncanny resemblance to both Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead.) Gabriel Ebert (Jonathon/Miranda) plays a younger first-time visitor and Nick Westrate (Gloria) is the friend who encouraged his visit. Tom McGowan is hilarious as Bessie, an overweight ex-sergeant who has a Wilde quotation for every occasion. Mare Winningham is George's devoted wife Rita. Lisa Emery has a short but important role as Eleanor, the daughter of one of the guests. The play has some comic moments, but ends up in much darker territory. The lengthy first act sags (I resisted the urge to say "drags") in the middle for a long stretch. Although the play addresses many interesting themes such as heterosexual transvestites' hatred of homosexuals, governmental intrusion and manipulation, budding activism and the collateral damage caused by people's life choices, I could not fathom what it was the playwright wanted the audience to take away from it. David Zinn's set and Kaye Voyce's costumes are effective. Director Joe Mantello makes the best of what is there, but cannot overcome the play's lack of focus. I'm sure things will be tightened up a bit during the two weeks of previews that remain, but I doubt that tinkering can solve the play's problems. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including intermission.

This time around, I was even more impressed by the excellence of the cast. They have deepened their performances and grown as an ensemble. The pace of the first act has improved and the arguments at the "sorority" meeting better reflect the individuality of the characters without seeming as pedantic as I first found them. Unfortunately, the problems of the second act have not gone away. What had seemed a sensitive group character study turns melodramatic. While I did not expect the ending to tie everything up with a neat bow, I still felt frustrated that the abrupt ending left too many issues unresolved. I wish the play had been given more time for workshops or an out-of-town tryout, because I think there is still a better play hiding somewhere inside. Nevertheless, because of the deeply affecting performances of the outstanding cast, I have changed my rating from two stars to three.

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