Midway through Casa Valentina, Harvey Fierstein’s new play about a 1960s Catskills haven for straight cross-dressing men, Charlotte (Reed Birney) rails against gays for tainting a transvestites’ paradise. “Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society,” she contends, “cross-dressing will be as everyday as cigarette-smoking.” The line gets a big laugh in Joe Mantello’s old-fashioned production at Manhattan Theatre Club; from our plush seats planted in that golden future, Charlotte’s venomous prophecy looks relegated to the ashtray of history on several counts.
Her remark is typical of the many instructive moments in Fierstein’s drama, which ultimately teeters under the weight of its didacticism. Casa Valentina does open a window onto historical questions about sexuality: Why do certain desires remain outlawed or shunned while others become accepted? When do individuals like Charlotte take a cue from society and when does society reflect the people who comprise it? For the most part, Fierstein gives us a history lesson in makeup and heels, dressed up as a drama. But his narrative, centered on men fueled by paranoia and shame, may stir thoughts for the Broadway intelligentsia who can observe how far we’ve come from the tortured mid-century psyches of the closet, even while other gender values have endured.
Over at the Belasco Theatre, a bedazzling new revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch indexes another kind of change. Neil Patrick Harris gives a soaring performance as Hedwig, the transgender East German émigrée who fronts a band with punk-inflected ballads of trailer parks, wigs, and cleft souls.
As a young man, Hansel paid a high price to escape to America; Hansel became Hedwig through botched surgery, only to see the Wall tumble. Now she dwells in a stage world where all binaries have fallen away: east and west, male and female — and things only get blurrier as the night goes on.
In Michael Mayer’s bright, playful staging, this glitter-covered blonde is far more luminous than tragic, even making a triumphant flying entrance to rival Tony Kushner’s angel of history. As she descends from the sky and the crowd roars and whoops, it’s clear that this once-marginal character has been embraced by the mainstream; in 2014, Hedwig is nothing short of a popular icon. (The show’s arrival on Broadway caps a long journey from a 1990s drag act to a cult musical downtown to film, album, and commercial success.)
The Angry Inch has come for a one-night-only gig but has to contend with a vulgar set left in place from Hurt Locker: The Musical, and the scenery invites gag commentary throughout. (“I do love a good scrim job,” she confides.) As the songs delve further and further into her story, Hedwig leaves these earthly constraints and reaches for the heavens.
True to the event, Harris gives us genuine magic from start to end; he commands star charisma as a woman, as a man, and as everything beyond and in between. Whether channeling Heidi, Joan Rivers, or “The Lion Queen,” Harris brings virtuosic timing and style. Does it matter that the final scenes, where the embittered singer eclipses her past and her body, don’t entirely make dramatic sense? Not really, when the music and wigs are this great and the lights surge this high. Hedwig arrives as an icon and departs, into a wall of klieg lights, as a meteor.