Thursday, 1 October 2015

Topher Payne's PERFECT ARRANGEMENT at Primary Stages

     I wasn't a fan of Topher Payne's ANGRY FAGS, an overlong mess of a play, which I saw in Atlanta, Payne's home town. I had higher hopes for PERFECT ARRANGEMENT. After all, it is being produced in New York by Casey Childs' Primary Stages, a classy outfit. As someone who has been writing on gay drama for a quarter of a century, I always try to muster high hopes for any play about gay history or  the experience of gay men. Alas, PERFECT ARRANGEMENT is another mess. It has moments and a few laughs but Payne hasn't decided what kind of play he is writing--sitcom, melodrama or preachy history. It is possible for situation comedy to deal with serious issues. Norman Lear proved that on television decades ago. My problem with PERFECT ARRANGEMENT is that when the play goes preachy toward the end, I found the message to be historically naive and a bit offensive. More on that anon.
     It is 1950 in Washington D.C. in the midst of the Joe McCarthy reign of terror. McCarthy and his cronies have just decided to expand their target from communists to "security risks" (read homosexuals). Bob Martindale (Robert Eli), is a State Department personnel officer assigned to root out the perverts with the help of his trusty secretary, Norma Baxter (Julia Coffey). Robert, a gay man, and Norma, a lesbian, have created a "perfect arrangement" for living with their lovers. Robert has married Norma's partner Millie (Mikaela Feely-Lehmann), and Norma has married Robert's partner Jim (Christopher J. Hanke). The couples live in adjoining apartments connected by a secret door inside the closet (got it?). This is a clever situation for situation comedy and when PERFECT ARRANGEMENT begins we are in sitcom land as the couples entertain Bob and Norma's boss and his ditzy socialite wife Kitty (Jennifer van Dyck). Costume designer Jennifer Caprio has clothed the women in extravagant fifties outfits -- a lot of money was well spent on the costumes. The talk at this little gathering sounds like the banter of women in television commercials of the period. When it is announced that Bob and Norma will be handling the "security risk" cases, the stakes rise for this little "family", as they call themselves. Enter Barbara Grant, Millie's ex, who is about to be investigated and fired, and the situation becomes even more difficult.
     Payne can't decide whether to stay in the realm of situation comedy or to write a melodrama. The play veers back and forth between genres. A masterful playwright like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins could have balanced the two masterfully as he has done in works like APPROPRIATE and AN OCTOROON. Of course, there is a very fine line between farce and melodrama. Payne's characters are cardboard thin. They are nothing more than their particular dilemma so there can't be much in the way of character development. This is why the character changes in the last fifteen minutes of the play seem to come out of nowhere. Yes, Bob has a serious ethical problem. In essence, he is asked to investigate and fire fellow homosexuals, but he is never developed as a character, so the audience can't quite be asked to judge him one way or another. His main objective is to protect his "family." A simpler answer than Payne provides is for Bob to quit. History shows, alas, that the nasty job would quickly be taken over by someone else.
     Payne inserts a lot of serious issues here, not only the dilemma of gay people in the McCarthy era when thousands were purged from government jobs (check out the documentary on Yahoo), but also the limited role of women in the 1950s. I believe he would serve these issues better through comedy than the preachiness that takes over in Act Two. Moreover, I was a bit put off by Payne's historically naive negative judgment of Bob at the end. This is 1950, Topher, and folks had little choice but to find a way to stay in the closet or lose everything. Payne thinks these folks can just take to the streets and change official homophobia overnight. History proves such a notion is plain stupid. On the way home, I couldn't help but compare Payne's naive sense of gay history and gay politics with Roland Emmerich and Jon Robin Baitz's clunky film, STONEWALL. The participants in the Stonewall riots, which took place nineteen years after the 1950 of PERFECT ARRANGEMENT, were basically folks with nothing to lose. As playwrights Doric Wilson and Terrence McNally have pointed out in their plays STREET THEATRE and SOME MEN, middle-class gays worried about the negative effect the riots might have on their closeted lives. Payne's characters would try to hold on to what they had and who can blame them? Well, a number of folk in the theatre last night clearly could as they applauded the sermonette that attacks Bob's family for playing it safe. Come on--what would those applauding audience members have done in those circumstances? You had to be there--or at least have an understanding of what it was like to be there--to judge these characters so simplistically.
     PERFECT ARRANGEMENT is an example of how mediocre drama can simplify issues in ways that can be infuriating.
      I saw an early preview. The cast clearly needs more time to settle in. Right now they all seem tentative. My general impression is that the director, Michael Barakiva, hasn't been much help in imposing a style on the play. The actors seem more comfortable with the melodrama than with the sitcom. They need to watch more 1950s television. Neil Patel's set looked suspiciously bare to me, more hotel room then home. Wouldn't Bob and Millie have some pictures of themselves as a couple around as set dressing? The costumes are fabulous.
PERFECT ARRANGEMENT. Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street. September 30, 2015.

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