Before rehearsals began for the new Broadway play “Casa Valentina,” the seven men in the cast were asked to come to work a few days early. They arrived to find a huge table covered with ladies’ wigs in ’60s-era hairdos — flips, bobs, French twists. Nearby was a long rack of colorful house dresses and white slips and brassieres. Yet no one made a move. The actors shared small talk, sipped coffee, checked their smartphones and looked around as if the room were empty.
If this was just another Broadway romp starring men in drag — another “Kinky Boots,” another “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” another “Twelfth Night” — the mood might have been lighter: Boas, corsets and high heels are fun, familiar staples of theater. But “Casa Valentina” is about a subculture rarely seen onstage — cross-dressers — and mixes masculinity and femininity in ways that daunted the actors at first, and may do the same to audiences. The play, now in previews, is based on a real Catskills resort where husbands and fathers went in the 1960s to dress and act as women. These were white-collar professionals hobbling in heels, not drag queens sashaying in stilettos; men expressing their femininity without compromising their maleness.
As the actors stood still that first afternoon together, the play’s author, Harvey Fierstein, decided they wouldn’t become a close-knit group — of cross-dressers or of cast mates — without some help.
“So I went over and I started putting these wigs on,” said Mr. Fierstein, a Tony Award winner who previously brought drag to Broadway in “Torch Song Trilogy,” “La Cage Aux Folles” and “Kinky Boots,” and won a Tony in a dress himself for “Hairspray.” “I was like: ‘Oh, this is the wrong color for me. Here John, you try that one.’ ”