The cool Catskill Mountains have long served as cities of refuge for young and old New Yorkers. Escaping the summer heat, families might settle in for a few weeks at bungalow colonies, letting the kids run wild until dusk. Or parents might breathe easier back in the city, sending their schoolkids off to the many summer camps that dotted the hills. What set the Catskills apart from similar getaway locales was the storied Borscht Belt, where big names such as Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen and Duke Ellington performed at venues that didn't pretend to be Venice or the Pyramids.
By a quirk of history, Harvey Fierstein's sad paean to the escapist wickedness of the Catskills, Casa Valentina, opened on Broadway a scant three weeks before the last great bastion of Catskills chic, the Kutcher's hotel and resort, closed down during the spring of 2014. Even the pugnacious New York Daily News rent its garments, declaring, "It's time to sit shiva for the old Borscht Belt." Somewhere among my photo albums, an old shot I took of my parents rubbing elbows with Howard Da Silva at Kutcher's gained more sentimental value.
The demise of the Borscht Belt during the run of Valentina also intensified the soft showbiz glow Fierstein has sprinkled upon the Chevalier d'Eon, a foundering Catskills enterprise run by Rita and George Vaccaro. Their bungalow colony caters exclusively to male transvestites seeking to escape their wives' surveillance and release their inner Ethel Mermans.
Business is not as usual as the action begins at Spirit Square in the current Queen City Theatre Company remount directed by Glenn T. Griffin. George returns from the post office, where he was grilled for hours about an intercepted manila envelope, teeming with gay pornography, addressed to his establishment. Back at the main house, two newcomers will check in that very day.
The first of these is the subtlest of Fierstein's artifices, Jonathan, who seems to have little more experience in the art of cross-dressing than stealthily fingering his wife's wardrobe. There's little more in his pathetic suitcase than a humdrum dress and a sorrier wig. So George and Rita must introduce all the regular guests to Jonathan, a great convenience for us. More importantly, most of these regulars flutter excitedly around Jonathan, teaching him the fundamentals of femininity, demonstrating their hospitality and humanity.
Perhaps the most formal of Jonathan's initiation rites is the taking of a woman's name. He chooses the most Shakespearean name in the gang, Miranda. Of course, it's George who sports the most flamboyant handle, Valentina. He's also the most eager to entertain his guests. If he's going to dress up like a nightclub chanteuse, he's going to be one. He has no trouble enticing some of the other girls to join him in the merry role-playing. Look out for some sassy lip-syncing.
You'll find some interesting contrasts between this risqué place and Fierstein's more famous club, La Cage aux Folles. Although Albin is the celebrated Zaza, his partner Georges out on the Riviera hasn't given himself a female name. Nor does the threat to the Chevalier d'Eon come from some pompous political ass outside the transvestite culture hoping to ride the wave of a moral crusade. No, the most devastating threats here come from within, so the prevailing tone grows sinister and dramatic rather than lighthearted and farcical.
Our other newcomer comes with an agenda, determined to stir up a ruckus. Charlotte runs a magazine for transvestites and, as publisher of Valentina's writing, has some leverage as well. He wants Valentina's circle to organize under a charter, and he wants one of basic tenets to differentiate all members from the beasts, emphatically declaring that transvestites are not homosexuals. It's the first question he's always asked on speaking tours, and he wants it to stop.
Talk about a party pooper. Obviously, Zaza never got Charlotte's memo or he would have turned in his tiara long ago. Charlotte is relying on Valentina to help him overcome whatever resistance his clientele might voice. But George proves to be a more squeamish diva than Albin, unable to declare "I Am What I Am" because he's not sure what that is. Compounding tensions, the whole crisis has Rita wondering whom she married, George or Valentina?
Griffin and his cast must navigate some murky waters here – and they only grow deeper as we move along. Fortunately, our anchors are strong with Berry Newkirk as Jonathan/Miranda wading into the culture for the first time and Barbi Van Schaick as Rita, helping George — and all of us — process the implications of the shifting currents. Newkirk is nervous and delicate, beautifully intimidated by his elders, the final aura that ennobles them. Van Schaick, on the other hand, is downtrodden and despairing in the face of all the weighty life lessons she has learned, determined to stay the course even though it's unlikely she and her spouse will ever reach the light.
Joe Rux as Isadore/Charlotte and Matthew Corbett as The Judge/Amy generate the most intense hostilities, one more devious and unprincipled than the other. We probably hate Rux far more because of Charlotte's bullying and homophobia, but Corbett is no less destructive, a massive oil spill of moral and physical weakness, all the more repugnant from a judge.
You may recall Matt Kenyon as the starstruck servant in the excellent Theatre Charlotte production of La Cage last fall. The telltale giggle is still there as Kenyon transitions to the more substantial role of Albert/Bessie, glad to become a bubbly Miss Congeniality in bringing Miranda along. He's reliably comical purveying Bessie's flamboyant vanity, yet he doesn't shrivel when Charlotte shows up. More in the background are Steven Martin as Michael/Gloria and Christopher Jones as Theodore/Terry. Shiny costumes by Jamey Varnadore help them project some of the most formidable style and poise.
The riddle of how to make Kristian Alexander Wedolowski glamorous as Valentina remains unsolved by Varnadore. Wedolowski is a handsome enough man as George, but the bright red wig selected for his Valentina transforms him into a nightmare Little Lulu. But glamor isn't the point at the heart of all this turmoil. It's the stresses threatening Valentina's livelihood, his marriage, and the circle he has drawn around him as his audience and support group. The ultra-neat absurdity of Wedolowski's appearance, somehow crumbling in both of his gender guises, helps him to project both George and Valentina's confusion.
Named after a famed and gender-ambiguous French spy of the 18th century, there really was a Chevalier d'Eon up in the Catskills, where New York professionals dolled up in secret, until it became known as Casa Susanna.
The owners were Tito Valenti and his wife Marie. They weren't very different at all from Fierstein's Vaccaros. Marie did operate a wig store, Tito did write for the daring Transvestia, and the couple prided themselves on schooling neophytes.
Virginia Prince (nee Arnold Lowman), Charlotte's real-life counterpart, closed down Transvestia in 1979, nine years after Susanna's last column for the magazine. Both Susanna and Virginia eventually made up their minds, finishing their lives as women. "I invented gender," Virginia boasted to the New York Times in 2006, less than three years before she died at the age of 96.