Never underestimate Harvey Fierstein's gift for revealing new worlds within worlds we think we know well.
In 1983, the force behind such big commercial musicals as "La Cage aux Folles" and "Kinky Boots" broke big new ground and hearts -- and won two Tonys -- with "Torch Song Trilogy," a four-hour Broadway drama about a gay Jewish drag queen's quest for love and family.
Here he is back without a band with his first nonmusical in decades. And it's moving, beguiling and, yes, again historically significant without lecturing or threatening. "Casa Valentina" is inspired by a real, little-known Catskills resort in the early '60s where husbands and fathers took temporary escape from day jobs and "Mad Men" respectability to dress up as women.
We are in the world of cross-dressers, not specifically gay men, whose sense of gender duality finds safe harbor in the secret lodge run by George/ Valentina (Patrick Page) and his supportive wife, Rita (Mare Winningham).
The pitch-perfect cast has been directed by Joe Mantello with equal parts joy, anxiety and understanding of just the right handbags. On this particular weekend, a tentative young man (Gabriel Ebert) sneaks away from his bride to release what one longtime wag describes as "the girl within." Beneath the good cheer in the bucolic tri-level hideaway (designed by Scott Pask), however, trouble rumbles.
But before the trouble, first the joy. This includes John Cullum as the proud matron; Nick Westrate as the confident, saucy one with the cinch belt and crinolines; Tom McGowan as the hefty Oscar Wilde scholar with the knowing family and fondness for nighties, and Larry Pine as the big-time judge with big-time secrets and the dowager lack of style. (Unerring period costumes are by Rita Ryack.)
As George transforms from his suit into Valentina's
cocktail dress (yet delightfully keeps his basso voice), we learn that the resort is facing bankruptcy, the feds are investigating gay porn sent through the mail and an activist cross-dresser (played with glorious imperial confidence by Reed Birney) could save the day.
The catch -- and the churning gut of the drama -- is the men must lose their anonymity and swear they're not gay. Who refuses and for what reasons? Fierstein wants us to understand the vast spectrum of gender and sexuality. Along the way, bless him, he understands how to entertain.
WHAT "Casa Valentina"
WHERE Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.
INFO $67-$125; 212-239-6200; manhattantheatreclub.com
BOTTOM LINE Gender bending in moving, beguiling cross-dressing hideaway