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Perfect Arrangement

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Robert Eli and Christopher J. Hanke
Photo by James Leynse

When Perfect Arrangement, the play by Topher Payne that just opened at the Duke on 42nd Street in a Primary Stages production, opens, we're immersed in the afterglow of a six-person dinner party that could easily live up to the work's title. The program tells us we're in 1950, but that's obvious anyway. The suits are crisply pressed and the dresses clingy and flowy, the hair is smartly cut (for the gents) and styled with a firm wave (for the ladies), and the cocktail glasses clink with the ring of civilized middle-class society at its most effortlessly harmonious. The scene is almost self-consciously creamy and refreshing: a cliché come to life, but one in which the six people we see are all too happy to live.

It takes hardly a second after one husband and wife leave, however, for this frothy façade to fade and for the truth to be revealed. The happy couples are, in actuality, happy couples! Just not with their professed partners. The men, Bob Martindale and Jim Baxter (Robert Eli and Christopher J. Hanke), are together; so, for that matter, are Millie and Norma (Mikaela Feely-Lehmann and Julia Coffey). The only wrinkle: Bob really is married to Millie and Jim really is married to Norma. And once everyone is behind closed doors, they rearrange more appropriately. That the Martindales and the Baxters live in adjoining apartments only makes the ruse easier. (It's a not-so-subtle joke that traversing the secret passage between the two residences involves going into and coming out of a closet.)

This may seem like a setup for a lively farce, complete with slamming doors, near misses, and disapproving authority figures; the third couple from the opening scene, Theodore and Kitty Sunderson (Kevin O'Rourke and Jennifer Van Dyck), are strictly conservative, tradition-loving types), and Payne does spend a fair amount of time going down that road. It quickly becomes clear, however, that he has more serious matters in mind: Bob and Norma work for Theodore at the State Department, where they are now being charged to expand beyond the search for communists and search out, as Theodore says, "persons vulnerable to blackmail. Drunkards. Loose women. General moral turpitude. Deviants." The last meaning, of course, gay people.

Julia Coffey and Mikaela Feely-Lehmann
Photo by James Leynse

It's this clashing of public and private lives that fuels the rest of the play, manifesting itself in ways alternately comedic and sobering. Take, for example, the case of Barbara Grant (Kelly McAndrew): She's a Translation Department worker who fits snugly into the "loose women" category of offenders, so much so that she's had a dalliance with one of our four central marrieds, who must in turn masquerade for a stranger as long as possible. And later, when the framework of lies on which everyone is building their lives has grown too fragile, of course everyone must make a choice about which side to follow, which in turn threatens to rend the relationships that, to that point, seem absolutely airtight.

That's when Perfect Arrangement starts losing its footing and its pungency. Payne wisely views each and every plot point through the yet-restrictive culture of that time, never losing sight of how gay people were forced into the shadows in plain sight. (And, as you might imagine, he gets a lot of mileage out of coming up of new ways for the men and the women to explain why the "wrong" person always seems to be in the room or on the phone.) But Payne eventually pushes far enough that you start to question how sincerely drawn these characters are. Late in the second act, when everyone must decide whether to pursue for equal recognition or to instead work silently and deceptively, the tough choices become unconvincingly easy for almost everyone, any conflict suggesting otherwise resolving itself almost as it soon as it appears.

Payne seems desperate to link these undercover crusaders to those who, decades later, would riot at Stonewall or push for total legalization of gay marriage. But in doing so he downplays the oppression, and even danger, that those people were fighting against. To show this kind of rebellion as one option in the hypersensitive 1950s is daring; the show it as the only option, which Payne essentially does, is both draping history in ill-fitting modernity and unsatisfying dramaturgy. That such an outlandishly original setup leads to an ending that is not just shockingly conventional but also glaringly predictable is a tremendous disappointment.

At least most of the rest of Michael Barakiva's production is sharply rendered; Barakiva's pacing is adroit at each of the register shifts (which can't be easy given how many there are), the physical production (most critically Neil Patel's sets and Jennifer Caprio's costumes, like the writing both nudgingly satirical) solid, and the performances good. Eli's stiff-backed, straitlaced manner is particularly good and governmental, and Feely-Lehmann suavely suggests Millie's innate intelligence without overplaying. A bit iffier are Hanke, primarily a musical performer, who seems slightly at odds trying to layer Jim's natural inconsistencies, and McAndrew, who makes Barbara a perplexingly restrained libertine.

Trusted with perhaps the most interesting role, though, is Van Dyck. She's thoroughly believable as the mid-century embodiment of a perfect wife, and brings a blithe good nature to Kitty's constant dispensing of the social gaiety she must oversee. But Kitty also possesses a seductive secret that we learn about quite late, when she admits that she, too, is something rather more than the one-dimensional face she presents to the world.

There's much that's entertaining and thought-provoking about Perfect Arrangement, but it would be better if Payne didn't himself discard Kitty's lesson so readily. He may have happened on a compelling way to immerse us within the mores of a different time. But by working too hard to connect that era to ours, he forgot that all revolutionaries, like all housewives, are not easily categorized.

Perfect Arrangement
Through November 6
Duke On 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
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