by Tulis McCall
Topher Payne is a curious man who likes to uncover the truth, create funny characters, and put them in serious situations. In Perfect Arrangement his focus is on the Lavender Scare. Never heard of it? Neither had Topher. But when he did, he zeroed in on it like a heat-seeking missile.
The Lavender Scare followed the Red Scare – the 1950’s were so very colorful. While the Red Scare focused on Communists, the Lavendar Scare focused on, as Joseph McCarthy called them “mentally twisted”. Homosexuals. Apparently the world was awash with these people, starting with the State Department. Within a few months 600 people were dismissed from Federal Civil Service – lives ruined because their perversion was part of their record. Not for nothin’ but homosexuality remained a cause for dismissal until Bill Clinton ended the practice with an executive order in 1995. Aren’t we progressive….
Bob (Robert Eli) and Millie Martindale (Mikaela Feely-Lehman) and their friends Norma (Julia Coffey) and Jim Baxter (Christopher H. Hanke) have figured a way around this. And the revelation is one of those “of course” moments. This foursome on the outside are all indeed married to the proper flavor spouse, but when the doors close, they fall into same-sex beds. It is indeed perfect.
Except for the little tiny detail that Bob and Norma work for the State Department. In the internal security division. It is 1950, and their job has been kicked up a notch. The new crosshairs are set on the homosexuals working for the government. They are to be discovered, uncovered, and booted out onto the street. While the dogs are kept at bay, the cracks in the walls are nearly visible. Life begins to crumble, and not just because of the threat of being found out. The new rules put a light their lives. What was once a clever way around a heinous situation has begun to smother them all. Protecting their own selves begins to feel like living a lie.
Topher’s approach is to tread lightly and to take us into a set up that is reminiscent of the television comedies of the 1950’s. These excellent actors, aided by the direction of Michael Barakiva who knows from comic timing, zip in and out of each other’s lives like June bugs. They dart and weave. They intrude and obfuscate. They observe without appearing to do so. Nothing is as it seems, and soon we are all on edge waiting for a door (or a closet) to bust open.
Like all excellent story tellers, Topher teaches without banging us on the head. He brings us into the story with plenty of humor – there is a ton of laughs – and very smart dialogue. Once we are committed, he turns up the heat. These characters do not remain at arm’s length. We climb into their bar car willingly. So when the train ends up in a smooth little Lavender concentration camp of America’s own making, we find ourselves guilty because of association. There is no good way out.
Or is there? In the only contrived moment of the play, Topher reminds us that these are the people (who would be in their 90’s now) who, once exiled, decided to take a stand. With their backs to the wall they began a ferocious defense. These were the paving perverts, whose punishment ultimately began a fire that would not be tamed.
This is an extraordinary play that pulls you into an argument you might just as soon avoid. And placing it in the 1950s means that many people in the audience will be watching something that happened, and was covered up, in their lifetime. This is not a far off occurrence. This is in our personal memory back, which makes a person wonder. Who among us would risk our comfort and our safety for a cause? Even here in New York, the home of every liberal train of thought that ever chugged into the sunset, we talk a good game, but how many of us have walked the walk? In Perfect Arrangement we meet some of the people on whose shoulders we ride. This is a play that makes you want to go back and thank them. And once that is over, pull up a pitcher of martinis and have a serious sartorial discussion.
Perfect Arrangement, by Topher Payne – Directed by Michael Barakiva
WITH Julia Coffey, Robert Eli, Mikaela Feely-Lehman, Christopher H. Hanke, Kelly McAndrew, Kevin O’Rourke and Jennifer Van Dyck
Set Design Neil Patel, Costume Design Jannifer Caprio, Lighting Design by Traci Klainer Polimeni
Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd, 229 West 42 Street. Tickets 646-223-3010