Casa Valentina, the new play by four-time Tony winner Harvey Fierstein, opened April 23 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Based on actual events, Casa is set in a 1962 Catskills vacation colony where heterosexual men dress as women. Tony winner Joe Mantello (Wicked, Assassins) directs a cast including Patrick Page (A Time to Kill, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), Mare Winningham (Picnic), Reed Birney (Uncle Vanya, Circle Mirror Transformation), John Cullum (Shenandoah, The Scottsboro Boys), Gabriel Ebert (Matilda), Nick Westrate (Love’s Labour’s Lost), Tom McGowan (La Bete), Larry Pine (The Royal Family, The Seagull), and Lisa Emery (Relatively Speaking, Abigail’s Party).
Critics praised Fierstein for his witty dialogue and compassion for exploring issues of gender identity, as he has previously in Torch Song Trilogy and the musicals La Cage Aux Folles and Kinky Boots. Rita Ryack’s character-defining costumes also came in for kudos. But most reviewers found the playwright’s tone preachy and the plotting melodramatic, particularly in the second act when a blackmail scheme is revealed.
“The terms of the arguments here are intelligent, and sometimes even provocative,” wrote Ben Brantley in his mixed notice for the New York Times. “But the air often feels filled with the dry dust of chalk erasers being batted together by a painstakingly instructive schoolteacher.” Mantello’s direction and the acting were uniformly cheered. David Cote of Time Out New York called the company “the finest corps of character actors onstage now.” Here are excerpts from the major reviewers.
Ben Brantley, New York Times
“[A]t a certain point, the feeling arrives that a message is being thrust upon you by stiff, insistent arms. And you just wish that Mr. Fierstein trusted more in his actors to deliver that message by indirection and in his audiences to infer it.”
Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post
“The show, tightly directed by Joe Mantello, cruises through its first act, where Fierstein neatly balances pathos, killer one-liners—‘I’m so pretty I should be set to music’—and a battle of ideas after Charlotte reveals her agenda. Things bog down after intermission, when there are one too many earnest speeches and saintly Rita admits to an unease with her marriage.”
Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News
“Chanel-clad Charlotte (Reed Birney, poised and poisonous) wants to legitimize the cross-dressing “sorority” as a nonprofit organization. Rooting out homosexuals, using blackmail and federal connections, if necessary, is the way to do it. That’s when the play goes pear-shaped and sinks into Joan Crawford melodrama. The message of Casa Valentina remains frustratingly murky.
Linda Winer, Newsday
“The pitch-perfect cast has been directed by Joe Mantello with equal parts joy, anxiety and understanding of just the right handbags….Unerring period costumes are by Rita Ryack.”
Elysa Gardner, USA Today
“Fierstein’s compassion for his characters never flags, and director Joe Mantello juggles the vivacious and bleak elements of the play—its warmth and wryness, both characteristic of the playwright—adroitly.”
David Cote, Time Out New York
“Joe Mantello commands the finest corps of character actors onstage now, in an impeccably designed production… The only problem with Casa Valentina is a rather big one: Fierstein sets up 80 percent of his story, then doesn’t know how to finish it for maximum impact.”
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter
“Joe Mantello’s impeccable production and a cast of outstanding actors make this an engrossing portrait of a marginalized group, but the strong set-up isn’t matched by focused follow-through.”
Marilyn Stasio, Variety
“Fierstein vividly captures a group of these brave pioneers with their girdles on, and a trim ensemble helmed by Joe Mantello lends them character. But the plot is messy, the action static, and attempts to probe the psychosexual dynamic of transvestism are tentative and superficial.”
Adam Markovitz, Entertainment Weekly
“Fierstein’s explosive resolution feels rushed and less authentic to the characters than the Donna Reed wigs on their heads. Still, the most lasting impressions of Casa Valentina are good ones: Fierstein’s meticulous dialogue, Joe Mantello’s smooth and confident direction, the cast’s flawless performances.”
David Finkle, Huffington Post
“Yes, Fierstein fans, there are plenty of belly laughs as the two-acts unfold on Scott Pask’s lean version of a mountain getaway that’s seen better days. But the playwright has much more on his mind and up his chiffon sleeve. What he’s conjuring is a work along the lines of his reputation-making Torch Song Trilogy but far more probing, far more trenchant, far more unsettling than that earlier three-part opus.”