“It was air conditioning that leveled the Catskills,” one of the cross-dressing characters in Harvey Fierstein’s excellent new play, “Casa Valentina,” says. “Why drive when you can use a machine to cool off your home?”
The line drew a lot of knowing laughs and also some sighs from the Broadway audience, many of whom knew that at that very moment, the last of the grand Catskill resorts was being destroyed. Kutsher’s, built in 1907, is to be rebuilt as a yoga retreat center and spa.
As a kid in the 1960s, Fierstein and his family would vacation in the Catskills. But he wasn’t aware of the Chevalier d’Eon Resort, the real basis for Casa Valentina, a place where men would step out of their married lives into female identities, wearing the dresses, corsets, pumps and make-up in which they felt most like themselves. Here, they’d be among men who, for a variety of reasons, shared this preference.
Fierstein succeeds in bringing viewers into the center of a world they may not have known existed, providing some funny lines (Fierstein doesn’t play in the show, but one can hear his voice) but moreover a compassionate, intimate view of these men’s lives and their pain at having to hide a part of their selves. At this run down bungalow colony, guests found a dream place, their own idyllic getaway.
Whether in search of air conditioning – or endless servings of kosher food, classic borsht belt humor, like-minded folks, year round ice-skating, the possibility of romance or now yoga – visitors to the Catskills have a tradition of inventing “our own Garden of Eden.”
“I love this place,” one cast member says. “Here I am me.”
“Casa Valentina” is playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St.