Cross-Dressers In The Catskills:
Wed, 02/19/2014
Harvey Fierstein creates an alternative resort in the mountains. Carol Rosegg
Harvey Fierstein creates an alternative resort in the mountains. Carol Rosegg

From the comedians of the Borscht Belt to the creators if 1987’s coming-of-age movie “Dirty Dancing,” the Catskills have inspired generations of Jewish performers and writers. Now, just two months after the shuttering of the last Jewish Catskills resort, Kutsher’s Country Club, comes a different take on the fabled vacation spot. Harvey Fierstein’s new play, “Casa Valentina” is about cross-dressing heterosexual men in the 1960s who establish their own discreet resort, to which they repair as an escape from their families and the pressures of middle-class respectability. But when the opportunity arises for the hotel to become an official organization, the men’s desire for privacy must be balanced against the potential for societal acceptance of alternative lifestyles. The Manhattan Theatre Club production opens April 23.

Directed by Joe Mantello, “Casa Valentina” boasts an all-star cast that includes John Cullum (“The Scottsboro Boys”), Gabriel Ebert (“Matilda the Musical”), Patrick Page (“Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark”), Larry Pine (“The Designated Mourner”), Reed Birney (“Picnic”) and Tom McGowan. The play is Fierstein’s first on Broadway in almost three decades; he is best known as a playwright for the Tony-winning “Torch Song Trilogy,” three one-acts about a torch-song singing Jewish drag queen in which the gravelly-voiced actor also starred. He has also appeared as Tevye in the most recent Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and written the books for four musicals — “La Cage aux Folles,” “A Catered Affair,” “Newsies,” and the still-running, highly decorated “Kinky Boots.”

“Casa Valentina” is inspired by an actual place, the Chevalier d’Eon resort (named after an 18th-century transvestite French soldier and spy), also known as Casa Susanna. The Victorian-style home, which was located near Hunter Mountain in upstate New York, was profiled in a 2005 photo book by Michel Hurst and Robert Swope that presented snapshots of men in the early 1960s who gathered there to don women’s clothing. A New York Times feature in 2006 quoted historian Robert Hill observing that the cross-dressing Casa Susanna men had “one foot in the mainstream and the other in the margins.”

The producers of the new play have been tight-lipped about its content, and Fierstein did not respond to The Jewish Week’s multiple requests for an interview. But the press release calls the play a “glimpse into the lives of a group of unforgettable characters as they search for acceptance and happiness in their very own Garden of Eden” — a description that may accord with many Jewish New Yorkers’ fond memories of the Borscht Belt. 

“Casa Valentina” begins previews on April 1 for an April 23 opening at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. For tickets, $67-125, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.