Harvey Fierstein's new play, Casa Valentina, isn't about drag queens, although you'd certainly be excused for thinking it is. Grown men swan around in dresses and pearls, lip-syncing to old records and swapping makeup tips. Size-13 heels clatter across the stage. But the men who stayed at the Chevalier D'Eon, the real-life 1960s Catskills retreat at the heart of The Manhattan Theatre Club's fascinating and intricately drawn period piece, weren't drag performers at all. They were transvestites seeking a safe haven from a disapproving world, businessmen and upright citizens who felt an irresistible urge to wear women's clothing—and whose greatest goal was to ''pass'' for female with understated wigs and hausfrau dresses. They were also almost exclusively straight and married.
The hotel's owners, George (Patrick Page) and Rita (Mare Winningham), for example, are a happily married fortysomething couple — or, more accurately, a happily married family of three. Valentina, George's female alter ego, is the real mistress in the relationship, and Rita keeps her marriage steady by accepting Valentina as something like an in-law: amusing, aggravating, and bound to her for life. (Although the setting is real, the story and characters are all fiction.) The couple's yearly summer guests all have similar arrangements in their own lives, with varying degrees of success. War hero Albert (Tom McGowan), Englishman Terrence (John Cullum), businessman Michael (Nick Westrate), teacher Jonathon (Gabriel Ebert), and Judge (Larry Pine) are also Bessie, Terry, Gloria, Miranda, and Amy—the chatty, dolled-up lodgers on a summer weekend at the Chevalier D'Eon.
Only one of the guests, Charlotte (Reed Birney), lives openly as a transvestite, and she (the characters insist on feminine pronouns) comes to the retreat on this occasion with a goal beyond cocktails and chit chat: turning this sisterhood into a nationally recognized nonprofit organization. The obvious problem is that board members would have to reveal their identities to the world. The less obvious, more devious obstacle is that Charlotte is also asking each member to sign an affidavit of heterosexuality to distance the group from gays. ''Unlike them, we are not seekers of prey. We don't hunt children, expose ourselves, or proselytize our practices all activities of which the homosexual is guilty and to which society rightly objects,'' Charlotte argues. ''So what have we in common with them?'' To complicate matters further, George has just been questions by U.S. postal inspectors regarding a packet of explicit homoerotica mailed to him anonymously and intended for one of his guests. He doesn't know which one, since the confiscated packet was ripped open in transit.
A quasi-witchhunt follows, setting a violent and sobering climax in motion. In a play full of proud fakeries, the story hits the loudest false note. 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. And if the characters teach us anything, it's that confidence and charm can cover a multitude of imperfections. B+(Tickets: Telecharge.com)