October 21, 2015

"Perfect Arrangement" is a Sweet-and-Sour Mix of Comedy, Tragedy...and Gay History

History, they say, is written by the victors. But sometimes there's a game change and new tales get told. Which may explain why long suppressed parts of the American story are finally making it to the stage in shows like Allegiance, the soon-to-open musical about the Japanese-Americans who were forced into internment camps during World War II; and Perfect Arrangement, the subversive comedy about the McCarthy-era witch hunt of gays and lesbians that opened last week at Primary Stages.

The persecution of people for loving someone of the same sex didn't strike me as a laughing matter and so I was somewhat uneasy about seeing Perfect Arrangement. The perky '50s pop tunes that played before the show began and the sight of a glossy, sitcom-ready set did little to qualm my concerns as my friend June and I settled into our seats at The Duke on 42nd Street where the show is playing through Nov. 6.

But playwright Topher Payne and director Michael Barakiva know exactly what they're doing (click here to read an interview with them). The domestic comedy hijinks at the start of their production make all the more poignant their eventual ruminations on all the obstacles—including shame and self loathing—that had to be overcome before gay people could stand up for their rights and openly tell their stories.

Here's the setup:  it's 1951 and Bob Martindale, a mid-level manager in the internal affairs division of the State Department, and his stay-at-home wife Millie are entertaining two other couples in their Georgetown duplex: Bob's co-worker Norma Baxter and her school teacher husband Jim, who live next door; and Bob's boss Ted Sunderson and his ditzy wife Kitty.

After the cocktails and canapés are served, Ted announces that Bob and Norma have done such a great job rooting out suspected communists in the department that they're now being given the job of finding and firing people suspected of being homosexuals. 

The rationale is that these folks are security risks because they're susceptible to blackmail that would make them betray the country's secrets since no one would want to be openly identified as gay.

What Ted doesn't know is that the Martindales and the Baxters are all gay, and that once behind closed doors they rearrange themselves into the actual couples of Bob and Jim and Norma and Millie, moving back and forth between two adjacent apartments through a secret door that is, pointedly, inside a closet.

So now Bob and Norma have to figure out a way to rid the department of gays without literally outing themselves and losing their jobs and reputations. And that task is made even more complicated when they have to juggle unexpected visits from the ditzy Kitty and an older lover of Millie's. 

As in any farce, identities are mistaken, wisecracks exchanged and doors slammed. The seven-member cast is uniformly terrific at all of it and the women look gorgeous in the period flared-skirt-pinched waist costumes that Jennifer Caprio has designed for them.

But, of course, there's more at stake here than in the usual boulevard comedy. The situation turns serious when some members of the foursome begin to tire of the charade and yearn for a life in which they can live openly with the person they love. Others, however, are determined to maintain the facade and protect the only way of life they can envision.

The campaign against gays that we now call the Lavender Scare isn't as well known as the anti-communist Red Scare but it may have been even more destructive, causing a couple of generations of gay people to burrow deep into the closet for fear of having their lives ruined in the way that those accused of being "deviants" experienced during the 1950s (click here to see a terrific 30-minute documentary on the subject). 

Payne's well-constructed play sheds valuable light on that era. Now I'm not saying that Perfect Arrangement is perfect. Payne also indulges in a bit of the wish fulfillment and historical revisionism that Quentin Tarantino used when he had Jews kill Hitler in "Inglorious Basterds" and slaves shoot down masters in "Django Unchained". 

Still, Payne remains sympathetic to all his characters (except the one out-and-out bigot) and his play reminds us that the real way to change history is to take one courageous step at a time.

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