Playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein has got people talking again. His latest play, "Casa Valentina," is a dramedy about a group of straight men who, yes, like to dress in women's clothes on occasion. The Manhattan Theatre Club production -- based on a true story -- opened at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Wednesday.
The year is 1962 and Valentina (aka George, played by Patrick Page) is the owner of a run-down Catskills resort that hosts cross-dressing weekends for guests (picture veteran actor John Cullum ... in a lavender dress). George's wife (Mare Winningham) cooks the meals, steams her husband's floral brocade and combs out his wig.
To some, this may sound intriguing, to others less kind words may apply, but Fierstein is used to exploring worlds few before took seriously. He proved that back in 1982, when he wrote and starred in "Torch Song Trilogy," a poignant tale of a Jewish drag queen looking for love. He won two Tony Awards (best play and best actor), starred in the film and has since built an impressive career, which includes writing books for musicals ("Kinky Boots," "Newsies" and "La Cage aux Folles," for which he won another Tony) and acting ("Fiddler on the Roof" and another Tony-winning turn in "Hairspray").
The Brooklyn native is also known for, well, that voice. He spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
It's fascinating -- we still know so little about men like this.
That's why I wrote the play. I've known transvestites over the years. Never thought about it much.
But then producers showed you a book with old photos of men from the '50s and '60s...
And I loved the photographs. There was something haunting about their smiles, about the joy in those pictures. So they said, "We see this as a big fun farce. These men running around cross-dressing. Maybe somebody comes over and doesn't realize they're actually men. Could be funny." I said, "Yeah, then go call somebody who does that. I don't do that." It always makes me laugh -- people think of me as funny and light. But I always say, "Tell me something I wrote that was just funny and light, that doesn't have other levels to it?" And they go, "Oh, yeah." Anyhow, I sort of dismissed it. Then I remembered a friend of mine who was the head of a gay and lesbian center in Norwalk, Conn. This was about 15 years ago, and she said there was this group of heterosexual transvestites, and they have a group they call a "sorority," and they wanted to meet at the center. I said, "Well, they're transvestites, they should." And she said, "But they're kind of anti-gay."
Yeah, I said, "REALLY?" She said she looked at some of their literature, and it all said ... for people of "normal" sexuality. They didn't allow gays.
Tricky word, "normal." So do you believe that some of these men are, in fact, heterosexual, as they claim?
Oh, of course. Isn't that what the play's about?
Yes. It's just ... tough, I think, for most people to fathom.
Well, that's just it. That's the point. There's heterosexual and there's gay, but there's no real line in between. It's just a sliding scale. It fascinated me as a playwright. There's this need, this desire. For some it could be sexual, for others it could be as simple as not wanting the pressure of being a man. I need a vacation from being a man. I mean ... the point of the play ... in many ways is ... there's no normal. You have to find a normal for yourself. And your personal normal will have very little to do with somebody else's.
Before I let you go, I've a flashback moment for you -- friends of mine live in your old Brooklyn apartment. In Park Slope.
Really. I bought a one-bedroom downstairs and then a studio upstairs, and broke through, I put a spiral staircase in. Is that the way it still is?
Still is. It's a great space, so large. And that amazing deck.
Yeah, the deck was almost a whole apartment itself. I had chaises and chairs up there. We used to throw parties and watch the fireworks.
Yes, on July Fourth, over the harbor in the distance. We've done that, too.
Well ... I'm GLAD. It's always nice to hear that things go on. Actually ... my bed from that apartment showed up on eBay. Somebody was trying to get $5,000 for it.
Seriously? They labeled it as your former bed?
Yeah. It was a platform bed with Formica cubes on either side with built-in lights. Ya know ... it was the '80s.
Five thousand bucks. Not bad.
Yeah ... they didn't get it.
Now you're in Connecticut.
Living the peaceful life.
The peaceful life. Well, if you're gonna type for a living, it might as well be pretty.