First Nighter: Topher Payne's "Perfect Arrangement" Less Than Perfect

Topher Payne sets Perfect Arrangement, directed by Michael Barakiva at the Duke, in 1950 Washington, D. C. when Commie baiting and routing out supposed deviants of any stripe were becoming federal government obsessions.

To particularize the frightening situation, playwright Payne introduces two married couples, Bob Martindale (Robert Eli) and Millie Martindale (Mikaela Feeley-Lehmann) and Jim Baxter (Christopher J. Hanke) and Norma Baxter (Julia Coffey), who live in adjoining apartments and, in addition to Bob and Norma working in the same deviant-hunting government agency, consider themselves best friends.

The truth of their alliances, however is that the actual couples are Bob and Jim and Millie and Norma--and demonstrative about it they certainly are. So their legal unions are the perfect arrangement to which Payne's title refers. They're the cover Bob and Norma require to continue toiling at their ever-worsening duties--seeing increasingly to the dismissal of suspected homosexuals--at the same time as keeping themselves out of harm's way. Jim is a teacher, and Millie is the housewife taking care of all their domestic needs.

Considering the reputation-ruining actions Bob and Norma are up to on a daily basis, the situation only gets uglier. Then, it threatens to unravel, as the foursome falls into a forced friendship with State Department official Theodore Sunderson (Kevin O'Rourke), a thoughtless bigot who plays strictly by the rules, and his bubble-headed, middle-aged wife Kitty (Jennifer Van Dyke). Problems intensify further when highly respected government translator and one-time poetry teacher Barbara Grant (McAndrew), whose reputation as bisexual precedes her, recognizes former student and one-time bed mate Millie.

That's when the four imposters--moving between apartments by way of a swinging door in an upstage closet (get the visual pun?)--start reassessing that perfect arrangement. Norma is the one most throttled by watching victims parade past her desk--at least one simply by incorrect speculation--while she remains safe. Bob's the one least disturbed, floating various rationales for his stand and fighting to defend it.

As seems likely from the opening, the one-time solution for the lovers blows up in their faces. (If it didn't, there wouldn't be much of a play, would there?) They're all four faced with deciding how to handle themselves in the disintegrating ménage. As guilt and shame lap at them, their individual conclusions provide the suspenseful denouement.

On the surface, Perfect Arrangement appears to be a hard-hitting look back at a period in America when fear of the other manifested itself hideously. Certainly, if Perfect Arrangement had materialized then, it would have been outstandingly bold--not to say outright shocking--and utterly necessary.

The thing is, however, that it wasn't written 65 years ago. Nothing like it emerged then. Nothing like it could have, or it would have. Playwrights knew to be circumspect--or else. People might have thought Blanche DuBois was in some respects Tennessee Williams's version of himself in a homosexual relationship with a Stanley Kowalski type, but that wasn't the play before them. In Tea and Sympathy, Robert Anderson footsied with Tom Lee's being tagged gay, but the student was revealed as merely sensitive. Only in 1960 did Gore Vidal's The Best Man confront the issue with any power.

Given the former climate now so radically altered, there's something easy about promulgating Perfect Arrangement the year after the Supreme Court announces the decision on gay marriage and several years after actors have long since performed graphic lesbian and gay scenes on stage.

There's something bordering on cheesy about having the Barbara Grant character deliver a fiery speech about a future when gay men and women will be accepted in society and those who lurked in the shadows will have disappeared into oblivion. Audience members with whom I saw Perfect Arrangement applauded the peroration as if they, too, shared that hope for the future, but they happen to be clapping when much of that future has been realized. How many of them would have been courageous enough to put their hands together had they heard such rousing oratory six decades back?

McAndrew as Grant does get to deliver one of the work's more legitimately laugh-getting lines, when as a switch-hitter, she observes, "Good sex is not easily found and always worth fighting for."

In the play's belatedly timely circumstances, Barakiva's cast members acquit themselves well, although he might not have encouraged them to behave so much like cartoon characters during the opening scene where the Martindales and the Baxters are entertaining the Sundersons over get-acquainted drinks.

Incidentally, when Traci Klainer Polimeni brings up the lights on the sequence and on Neil Patel's D. C. apartment with its strategically placed closet, the three couples are posed as if in imitation of Cecil Beaton's famous Vogue photograph of models wearing Charles James gowns. The effect is to show off Jennifer Caprio's costumes for the women, which are quite striking and possibly inspired by that very Beaton snapshot. Caprio keeps it up throughout and deserves special mention for her contributions. She's the one who's made the perfect arrangement.