Dallas — If you’re not careful, you might think that Perfect Arrangement, Topher Payne’s period comedy that was awarded the M. Elizabeth Osborn Award for best new play in 2014, is a typical comedy-of-errors bedroom farce set in the 1950s. Act One certainly makes it seems so, especially with its hilarious product placements and the fact that the play adopts the style of the period’s chief mode of representation of American life: the television sitcom.
Act Two, though, strips the play of much of its sitcom-inspired veneer. As the play progresses, it becomes more serious; didactic even.
The acclaimed B.J. Cleveland directs the regional premiere of Perfect Arrangement for Uptown Players at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. TheaterJones’ recent Q&A with the Atlanta-based playwright can be found here.
The play’s premise is simple enough. Two same-sex couples are pretending to be two straight couples in order to fly under Uncle Sam’s gaydar. At the same time that the Red Scare of McCarthyism is sweeping through the U.S. government, the lesser-known Lavender Scare is wrecking even more lives of still-closeted gays and lesbians. (McCarthyism is named for the Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, who once told reporters, “If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you've got to be either a Communist or a c*cksucker.”) State Department employees were tasked with weeding out “security risks,” those who because of moral turpitude or deviant behavior ostensibly opened themselves up to being blackmailed. In other words: “stop Communists, drunks, and f*gs from destroying America.”
One character casually remarks that 91 federal employees are “let go” in the program’s first three weeks; most of them for having the seemingly innocuous but loaded charge of “loitering in Lafayette Park” on their record. The examples mentioned in the play are based on actual historical cases.
Three couples and a very important outlier populate the play. Theodore and Kitty Sunderson are the older couple who offer to take the younger couples under their professional and social wings. Seasoned actor Bradley Campbell fills Theodore’s shoes superbly. Mr. Sunderson is the typical man’s man who questions the masculinity of anyone who attends the opera but sees nothing unseemly about his visits to the sauna. His language, peppered with casual homophobia and misogyny as he diagnoses what’s wrong with “f*gs” and “hens,” serves as an all-too-common refrain throughout the play.
His wife, the “horribly clever” Kitty, is impressively played by Lindsay Hayward. Kitty is the exaggerated kind of 1950s housewife easily scandalized by someone using frozen pie crust. Even though she begins the show as an overbearing busybody, Hayward finds the perfect moments to let Kitty’s humanity shine through, as in the moving revelation that she too has a kind of marriage of convenience.
Both Olivia Grace Murphy and Alyssa Cavazos are strong in their roles as lesbian power couple Norma and Millie. Their journeys from (at least seemingly) obedient State Department “career gal” and housewife to queer-feminist activists willing to risk it all is inspiring and reason enough to catch the show. Payne’s script smartly articulates the double bind of being female and gay in the middle of the 20th century, and Murphy and Cavazos take every opportunity to shine.
Male couple Bob and Jim, played by Kevin Moore and Matt Holmes, are the least nuanced of all the characters. Bob anchors much of the play, but his lack of a backbone, his internalized homophobia, and his inherent sexism make him rather unlikable. Both actors capably handle their roles, but on opening night they took turns botching lines.
Especially at odds with the morality task force is Barbara Grant, whose frankness about her personal life, she feels, should somehow shield her from the witch hunt sweeping through the U.S. government. After all, you can’t blackmail someone who’s not even afraid to reveal her age. Though her State Department coworkers constantly refer to her as a “slut,” she refuses to be shamed. Jacie Hood admirably plays the part of the tough-as-nails bonne vivante who warns Norma, “You’re an intelligent woman. They hate that.”
Eventually, the logic of “if you’ve done nothing wrong, then there’s nothing to worry about” starts to unravel, and alliances break down. When the male couple realizes that they no longer control the situation, they attempt to reassert the patriarchal order by clinging to their chauvinism, which further alienates the women.
Cleveland’s direction captures the nuances of the various tensions playing out on stage. Not only is the American government waging war with its homosexual employees and citizens, but this is also an era of rampant misogyny. The two same-sex couples, then, are nowhere near being an arrangement of equals.
The eye-catching set design by Kevin Brown is not quite pure mid-century modern, which makes it more historically accurate with its blend of more traditional elements and over-the-top mod wallpaper. The sofa, though, has a habit of sliding when the characters sit down. Clay Van Winkle’s creative lighting design achieves the intended sitcom feel. Costumes by Jessi Chavez and Suzi Cranford fit in with the wardrobes you might see in a 1950s sitcom. On opening night there was some terrible feedback produced when the miked actors were in close proximity to one another (as during an embrace) or talking on the telephone, but this has hopefully been fixed.
Perfect Arrangement is a thoughtful comedy that offers a harsh indictment of those who stay at home playing house instead of joining the nascent stirrings of the gay rights movement—or any kind of social justice activism, for that matter.