By: Sandi Durell
Seeing Harvey Fierstein’s latest non-musical contribution to the Broadway stage is reminiscent of taking a course in learning about transvestites and the art of cross dressing. The play is about purported straight men who meet at a Catskills run down bungalow colony in 1962 to engage in what they love most – acting and dressing like women. The real life Chevalier D’Eon, upon which this play is based, was a place where professional businessmen, politicians and other well regarded members of society could enjoy wearing wigs, women’s clothes and pass as everyday women.
In this play, most are married, some with children. However, in that McCarthy era what they were doing was engaging in a secret society, in order to be free to unveil their feminine side.
The distinction tries to be made between gay men who dress as women and straight men who do the same. And so we find George, whose alter ego is Valentina, married to Rita (Mare Winningham) having met years prior at her wig store, proprietors of the resort and hosts to the men who arrive for their weekend of pleasure. In order to keep the place from going under, George needs a financial boost from activist Charlotte (Reed Birney) who joins the frey in her efforts to unite the cross dressers into a society to hope to gain strength and visibility because they are all under investigation. “The enemy is secrecy” says Charlotte.
In their midst, is newbie Jonathan alter ego Miranda (Gabriel Ebert), newly married, anxious and unsure but soon made to feel comfortable as the others guide him along. He learns the ropes – more real looking boobs, padded backside, niftier wig and tips on make up.
Jolly Bessie, a decorated war hero (Tom McGowan), is like a mother hen. He’s middle aged and married with an understanding wife at home and has many of the laugh lines that add levity. Two of the group, Terrence (John Cullum) and Michael (Nick Westrate) see no need to come out about their comings and goings and are fearful of a backlash. Then there’s the Judge (Larry Pine) who has buried another secret.
Charlotte would like to have all of them sign an affidavit that they aren’t homosexuals so they can distinguish and distance themselves from the gay community, as she offers up all the reasons why.
As they lose themselves in the commonality of why they are there -dancing and exhibiting their feminine sides, things relax. However, long buried resentments surface in George and Rita’s relationship and we are left to wonder whether the wives of these men are enablers, accepting rather then taking a stand. For in reality, they play second fiddle to a larger and more potent competition – the feminine sides of their men.
Joe Mantello orchestrates his direction with aplomb. The run down resort is captured by Scott Pask’s set design and Rita Ryack has nailed the everyday look of the women’s costumes with the aid of Jason Hayes’ hair and wig designs.
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47 Street,NYC – 212-239-6200, telecharge.com. Through June 15. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.
Photos: Matthew Murphy