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Perfect Arrangement

Riveting and disturbing drama of 1950’s U.S. State Department witch-hunt against gays – investigating themselves – in the era of the Commie scare.

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Julia Coffey, Christopher J. Hanke, Jennifer Van Dyck, Kevin O’Rourke, Robert Eli, and Mikaela Feely-Lehmann in a scene from “Perfect Arrangement” (Photo credit: James Leynse)

Julia Coffey, Christopher J. Hanke, Jennifer Van Dyck, Kevin O’Rourke, Robert Eli, and Mikaela Feely-Lehmann in a scene from “Perfect Arrangement” (Photo credit: James Leynse)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

When the curtain goes up on Topher Payne’s riveting new play, Perfect Arrangement, it is 1950 and Bob and Millie Martindale are hosting a cocktail party for their boss Ted Sunderson and his dizzy wife Kitty in their Georgetown apartment. The other guests are their neighbors, the Baxters, Norma who is Bob’s secretary at the State Department, and Jim who is a school teacher. The conversation is light banter and reminiscent of 50’s sitcoms: the men are hearty and manly and the women are excellent homemakers or have help who are.

And then Ted drops a bombshell: in addition to Bob investigating suspected Communists during the Red Scare, now his department (the Personnel Security Board) will also look into “Persons vulnerable to blackmail. Drunkards. Loose women. General moral turpitude. Deviants,” deviants being the 1950’s way of referring to gay men and women in an age when homosexuality was criminalized.  This puts a scare into Bob, Norma, Millie and Jim as their “prefect arrangement” living in adjoining apartments is a sham. Although the two couples are legally married, it is Norma and Millie who are partners and Bob and Jim another couple, each in their own duplex reached by literally going through an adjoining closet.

Suddenly, not only will they be investigating themselves and other gay people like them, Bob and Norma run the risk of being outed and losing their jobs at any moment, as does Jim as a school teacher. And when Barbara Grant, the State Deptatment’s translator extraordinaire who has made no secret of her  open sexuality and has nothing to hide, comes to talk to both about her security clearance, she recognizes one of the four from an encounter years ago. The stakes are now pretty high.

Julia Coffey, Kelly McAndrew and Jennifer Van Dyck in a scene from “Perfect Arrangement” (Photo credit: James Leynse)

Julia Coffey, Kelly McAndrew and Jennifer Van Dyck in a scene from “Perfect Arrangement” (Photo credit: James Leynse)

The first act plays like farce with fast exits through four doors while the two couples attempt to keep their cover-up going on while Kitty is continually dropping in unannounced as Millie’s new friend. In the second act, things get tense with Barbara coming to give Bob an ultimatum and the gay witch-hunt getting uncomfortably close. And the perfect arrangement begins to crumble as Norma has now decided that she doesn’t want to keep up the pretense any longer, that they have come to believe the lie they are living.

Perfect Arrangement is a witty and engrossing well-made play in its depiction of a life style that now seems foreign in an age of same-sex marriages and openly gay heroes and icons. However, the ending in which the author presupposes a gay civil rights movement beginning in Washington, D.C., circa 1950, does not ring historically true. Nevertheless, up until the ending, Perfect Arrangement is taut, humorous and absorbing in its use of the most popular dramatic form of the 1950’s, the well-made play. Except for the taboo subject matter, this could have been written in that decade.

The cast is uniformly excellent bringing a vitality and commitment to their roles not often seen. Most memorable are Kelly McAndrew as Barbara Grant and Jennifer Van Dyck as Mrs. Sunderson in brilliantly drawn portraits. McAndrew makes Grant a bigger-than-life character, a woman who has lived large, sophisticated, sparkling, beautiful, formidable. You know exactly why she has done so well in the State Department and why she has had so many bed partners. Van Dyck’s Kitty is a hilarious portrayal of a woman who goes through life misunderstanding most of what is happening around her. However, she is quick to pick up hints and act on them.

Christopher J. Hanke and Robert Eli in a scene from “Perfect Arrangement” (Photo credit: James Leynse)

Christopher J. Hanke and Robert Eli in a scene from “Perfect Arrangement” (Photo credit: James Leynse)

Under Michael Barakiva’s unobtrusive direction, the members of the two gay couples make a strong contrast. Julia Coffey’s Norma is efficient, smart, wired, always ready with a comeback and quick on the uptake. As Millie, the stay at home wife, Mikaela Feely-Lehmann is attractive, down-to-earth, more likely to take things to heart. Robert Eli’s Bob is a man’s man, quiet, reserved, solid and conventional. His partner Jim played by Christopher J. Hanke would be a bohemian if he could but is a very good actor at the life they are living. Full of vitality, he is making the best of the arrangement. Though given the least to do, Kevin O’Rourke as Bob and Norma’s boss has just the right gruff heartiness to be a government official.

The play is splendidly served by the production team. Jennifer Caprio’s beautifully chic costumes for the women make you wonder why such gowns and suits have gone out of style, while her pitch-perfect eye also works wonders for the men’s outfits. The costumes are also complemented by J. Jared Janas’ wig and makeup design, redolent of the era. The large living room set by Neil Patel suggests the movie comedies and television sit-coms of the 1950’s and immediately places us in the right era as do the period costumes. Traci Klainer Polimeni’s extremely bright lighting always puts the characters under the microscope while suggesting the unreal set of a television studio taping. The sound design by Ryan Rumery with its period songs and doorbell and telephone rings enhances the feeling for the Truman Era.

Perfect Arrangement, Topher Payne’s first play to reach New York, is a well-crafted and engrossing play with much to say and has been magnificently staged in its Off Broadway debut. Don’t let the initial sit-com style fool you: this play has several serious messages at its heart about our personal freedoms and how repression starts at home.

Perfect Arrangement (through November 6, 2015)

Primary Stages

The Duke on 42nd Street, in Manhattan

229 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 646-223-3010 or visit http://www.primarystages.org

Running time: two hours and five minutes including one intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (644 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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