“Perfect Arrangement,” a socially conscious comedy that marks playwright Topher Payne’s debut in New York, is his take on what’s come to be called the Lavendar Scare of the 1950’s, an off-shoot of the Red Scare. “Senator McCarthy had such success with rooting out Communists in government service,” Payne has explained, “that he expanded the definition of security risk to include drunkards, loose women and suspected homosexuals — so basically anyone that makes a party worth attending.”
At its best, Payne’s play tells the story of the government’s persecution of gay people in the 1950s by borrowing giddily from a 1950’s sitcom like “I Love Lucy” – complete with comic one-liners, a ditzy dame, a farcical plot, crinkly ankle-length crinoline dresses, even a generic-looking set that recalls in style and layout that of a 1950’s situation comedy. But the play, which has opened at Primary Stages, ultimately stumbles, by in effect leaving the 1950’s – looking at this slice of history through the fixed lens of the 21st century.
Bob Martindale and his secretary Norma Baxter have been working for several years for the “Personnel Security Board” of the U.S. State Department, firing insufficiently patriotic employees. “Your methods of identifying anti-American sympathizers have resulted in the removal of thousands of security risks,” their boss Theodore Sunderson tells them. “Fine Americans, both of you.”
Sunderson, accompanied by his wife Kitty, is saying this at a dinner party at Bob and Millie Martindale’s Georgetown townhouse, which is also attended by Norma Baxter and her husband Jim. It’s here that Mr. Sunderson informs them of the expansion of their mission – to “deviants.”
“Teddy, you don’t mean fags, do you?” his wife asks.
“Kitty, don’t be off-color,” Mr. Sunderson responds.
This puts the Martindales and the Baxters in something of a spot. Until now, they have had a perfect arrangement, marriages of convenience to mask the fact that Bob Martindale and Jim Baxter are lovers, as are Millie Martindale and Norma Baxter – gay men married to lesbians.
The fake couples live in adjoining buildings; much comic and thematic use is made of the closet that secretly connects the two homes; we see each of the four at one time or another retreating into that closet.
What follows is Bob’s attempt to do his new task at the State Department with Norma’s help, while trying to keep their identities hidden so as not to ruin their own careers.
This proves difficult to do. For one thing, Ted’s wife Kitty takes a liking to them. (She’s the ditzy dame.) And then, Barbara Grant enters into the picture. She’s a skilled translator at the State Department, but she’s also one of the loose women, and Bob is fine with getting rid of her. There’s just one problem: long ago and far away, Barbara and Millie had a sexual dalliance.
Carefully plotted, well-acted, and delightfully designed, “Perfect Arrangement” offers delicious little moments of satire, such as when Kitty and Millie talk about being “girlfriends” (in the pre-liberated sense) and the characters rave about household products as if they are doing a 1950’s commercial for them. At a certain point in the play, there is a shift in tone, from comic to gravely serious. That would not be a problem if the resolution of the play were not so self-satisfied and implausible, a 2015 fantasy of 1950’s life, with strident, righteous lines like:
“You know, there’s going to come a day, and it won’t be long, when people like us stop lurking in the shadows. And history generally does not look kindly upon repressors, or their sympathizers….When we look back on your type, all we will feel is pity and disgust. And then, you will be forgotten.”
This glib uplift and relevance might be easier to accept were there not already plays that have more persuasively and precisely immersed us in the time and place and the terror that is the setting of “Perfect Arrangement.” Two that spring to mind are “The Temperamentals” by Jon Marans, which featured Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Buyer & Cellar), a clearly well-researched play about the founders of the early gay rights organization the Mattachine Society, and Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, which starred Ben Whishaw and Hugh Dancy, and was set in two different eras, 1958 and 2008. One need not use drama to rearrange the past in order to produce perfect heroes to inspire the present. It’s more honest and effective to try to understand the ways imperfect people muddled through. Survival is inspiring enough.
Click on any photograph by James Leynse to see it enlarged
At Primary Stages at Duke on 42nd Street
Written by Topher Payne
Directed by Michael Barakiva
Scenic design by Neil Patel, costume design by Jennifer Caprio, lighting design by Traci Klainer Polimeni, sound design by Ryan Rumery, hair and wig design by J. JaredJanas
Cast: Julia Coffey as Norma Baxter, Robert Eli as Bob Martindale, Mikaela Feely-Lehmann as Millie Martindale, Christopher J. Hanke as Jim Baxter, Kelly McAndrew as Barbara Grant, Kevin O’Rourke as Theodore Sunderson, Jennifer Van Dyck –as Kitty Sunderson.
Perfect Arrangement is scheduled to run through November 6, 2015