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Theatre in Review: Perfect Arrangement (Primary Stages/The Duke on 42nd Street)

Julia Coffey, Christopher J. Hanke, Jennifer Van Dyck, Kevin O'Rourke, Robert Eli, Mikaela Feely-Lehmann Photo: James Leynse

The arrangement alluded to in the title of Topher Payne's new play may or may not be perfect, but it certainly is more than a little seamy. When the lights come up on aggressively stylish Populuxe living room designed by Neil Patel, a cocktail party is in process. It is 1950; we are in the Washington, DC living room of Bob and Millie Martindale. The guest list includes Bob's boss, Theodore Sunderson, and his wife, Kitty, plus Norma Baxter, Bob's secretary, and her husband, Jim, a schoolteacher. This scene, which purposely features some of the silliest dialogue and artificial acting that I've seen in months, at first looks like a garden-variety spoof of the era's social mores -- manly men and girly housewives amusing themselves with almost painfully innocuous jokes.

Things get stickier when we learn that Bob and Norma are engaged in the task of hunting down Communist sympathizers among government employees. They get positively creepy when Sunderson announces that their portfolio is being expanded to include other possible security risks -- including alcoholics, loose women, and homosexuals. The latter category is particularly problematic, because both the Martindale and Baxter marriages are shams. Bob and Jim are lovers, as are Millie and Norma; they merely play house in adjoining residences -- which, not incidentally, are connected through a communicating door in the closet.

In Perfect Arrangement, Payne has set out to write the kind of postwar boulevard comedy -- like Born Yesterday or Affairs of State -- that combined romance with social issues, although in pursuit of conclusions that would have seemed positively subversive at the time. It's a fascinating idea, but it's undermined by the trouble that Payne, and his director, Michael Barakiva, have in finding a consistent tone. The scenes range from openly farcical -- lovers in a clinch, falling off a couch at the sound of the doorbell -- to brittle high comedy exchanges and deadly serious confrontations in which strict moral accountings are tallied up. The early scenes, in which the couples pass as loving heterosexuals, are played with such arch, forced gaiety that they quickly become grating: The cast members are acting fake, signaling their deception rather than letting us discover it for ourselves. Also, the use of dialogue that sounds borrowed from television commercials of the time ("The secret is Spry vegetable shortening! It is! I'd be lost without my three-pound can of Spry on the shelf, for anything from potted meats to light, fluffy biscuits, every time!") can get on one's nerves. And Sunderson is made out to be a figure of fun until he suddenly becomes a menace, largely because the plot requires it.

At the same time, this seemingly contrived situation isn't without precedent; I've read of gay couples who, in the pre-Stonewall years, sometimes partnered in social situations with lesbian pairs to give the appearance of propriety. And Payne has a sharp eye for his characters' abundant hypocrisies. When Norma says, "It's my duty as an American to identify threats to our way of life. When your country calls, you answer," it's easy to believe that she believes it. Payne also charts the ladies' growing disenchantment with the arrangement -- surveying her living room and her latest outfit, Millie says, "It is a set and these are the costumes." And there's a nifty twist when one of Bob and Norma's victims, Barbara, a bisexual State employee with plenty of notches on her belt, shows up to plead her case and turns out to be a woman from Millie's past, the perfect arrangement goes into a high state of destabilization.

Even if Perfect Arrangement wanders all over the map tonally, it is never dull and there many moments when it finds its caustic center, thanks to a highly skilled cast. Julia Coffey cannily traces Norma's growing disillusionment with her life, especially when she is forced to wonder out loud, "Is our side different from the boys next door?" Aside from a bit of ill-considered farce business with a coffee set, designed to show that her nerves are out of control, Mikaela Feely-Lehmann is a delight as Millie, especially when snappishly defending her past to the censorious Bob ("You're right: When I was nineteen years old I wasn't giving proper consideration to how a teacher I screwed in Canada could eventually marry, change her name, divorce, move to America, begin working for the government, and threaten my marriage of convenience to the State Department's chief inquisitor. Why, oh why, did that never cross my goddamn mind?") Christopher J. Hanke is a consistently charming presence as Jim, whether sliding through the kitchen door, pouring scotch into a partly filled bottle of milk, or passing out his special brand of cocktail, which leaves everyone else looking seasick. Robert Eli is especially strong as Bob, the author of the entire scheme, who is gradually revealed to be a control freak and a bit of a bully. Kelly McAndrew takes each of her scenes and slips it into a chic little hatbox as Barbara Grant, who, cut loose from her position, decides to become a gay rights activist. ("Regardless of the gender of the participants, good sex is not easily found, and always worth fighting for.") Jennifer Van Dyck is less successful as Kitty , a mass of girlish giggles and nervous mannerisms with a special attachment to her fox fur wrap, and Kevin O'Rourke has little to do as Sunderson, except deliver piles of exposition in each act.

The production looks great, thanks to Patel's highly stylized set and Jennifer Caprio's costumes, which provide some New Look stunners for the ladies and incisively detailed outfits for the men. Traci Klainer Polimeni's lighting adds to the polished look and Ryan Rumery's sound design makes good use of many of the era's novelty musical hits.

Still, this is an imperfect Perfect Arrangement -- sometimes sharply witty, sometimes almost leaden in its moralizing, and sometimes too silly for words. It doesn't help that the play climaxes with a come-to-Jesus finale in which too many characters successively realize that honesty is the best policy. As the curtain falls, it seems that the local chapters of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis are about to greet a horde of fresh new recruits. -- David Barbour

(16 October 2015)

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