Bostonians have certainly heard a lot of Harvey Fierstein’s distinctive voice lately — his writing voice, that is.
In June, “Newsies’’ arrived at the Boston Opera House, featuring a power-to-the-people book by Fierstein. In August, the Opera House played host to another Fierstein-scripted musical, “Kinky Boots,’’ a high-heeled ode to individual expression.
Now comes SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Fierstein’s clever and poignant, if underdeveloped “Casa Valentina.’’ Inspired by real events, the play revolves around a group of transvestites who regularly gather for mutual support, camaraderie, and understanding at a discreet Catskills bungalow colony in 1962.
As the men don women’s clothing and proceed to release, explore, or try to find their true identities, “Casa Valentina’’ abounds in Fierstein’s trademark witty repartee, though some of it is too archly mannered. Under the incisive direction of Scott Edmiston, the SpeakEasy production furnishes a roomy showcase for a host of good Boston actors, especially Thomas Derrah, for whom the adjective “good’’ has never really been sufficient.
The play’s focus wavers in its second half, however, as if Fierstein is uncertain how to pull together the diffuse strands of his story. A slightly drifting, unresolved quality creeps into “Casa Valentina,’’ deflating the production’s dramatic momentum, despite a couple of Act 2 showdowns and a transfixing final image created by Derrah.
He portrays the group’s leader and host, George, who goes by Valentina when in drag. Derrah transitions with consummate artistry between George’s somewhat weary demeanor and Valentina’s aura of worldly self-possession. Like other men there, George is heterosexual and married to a woman, in his case the extraordinarily accommodating and big-hearted Rita. Played by Kerry A. Dowling with a trace of pathos that never tips over into bathos, Rita lives with the painful knowledge — we can see it in her eyes — that her husband is most fully alive when he is a she.
On this particular day, a young newcomer has arrived at the resort, uncertain whether he belongs there, seemingly uncertain where he belongs at all: Jonathon, a.k.a. Miranda, portrayed by Greg Maraio. Miranda brings out the solicitude of the other men, who refer to themselves by female names and pronouns. They include the bubbly, Oscar Wilde-quoting Bessie (Robert Saoud); the glamorously confident Gloria (Eddie Shields); the somber Terry (Sean McGuirk), older than the rest; and the curmudgeonly Judge, a.k.a. Amy, played by Trinity Repertory Company stalwart Timothy Crowe. (Also making an appearance, late in the play, is Deb Martin as the Judge’s daughter). In a touching scene of solidarity, several of the men hold up hand mirrors to show the once-frumpy Miranda the results of her comprehensive makeover.
One figure, though, introduces an element of tension into the jovial gathering: Will McGarrahan’s gimlet-eyed Charlotte, a writer seeking to enlist the others in forming the first East Coast chapter of an organization called the Sorority, one of whose goals is to overturn laws against transvestitism. They react with misgiving to his proposal, since it would require them to go public.
Moreover, Charlotte wants them to support a ban on homosexual membership in the organization, saying: “As long as ‘transvestite’ is synonymous with ‘homosexual,’ no decent society will ever welcome us. . . . I am willing to do whatever is necessary so the authorities understand that we are harmless.’’ Indeed, Charlotte proves willing to dish out some harm of her own in pursuit of that goal.
“Casa Valentina,’’ which premiered on Broadway last year, is strengthened by Fierstein’s knowledge of, and empathy for, men who wear women’s clothing, in all their nuance and caught-between-two-worlds contradiction.
Though set more than a half century ago, the play has a certain resonance today, a time when notions of gender identity and expression have become more fluid. As a writer and performer, cross-dressing is not a new topic for Fierstein (“Torch Song Trilogy,’’ “Hairspray,’’ “La Cage aux Folles,’’ “Kinky Boots’’). Though he has often tended to get a bit message-y and does so again at times in his script for “Casa Valentina,’’ that may be an inevitable byproduct of his determination to present stories about marginalized people to mainstream audiences.
But in the SpeakEasy production’s most resonant scene, Fierstein’s characters don’t say a word, but rather lip-synch and dance — with serene confidence in who they are — to a recording of “Sugartime,’’ by the McGuire Sisters. In those joyous moments, the inhabitants of “Casa Valentina’’ really do seem to have come home.
Play by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Scott Edmiston. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Nov. 28. Tickets start at $25. 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com