Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"Perfect Arrangement" - Not so perfect for those involved

By Judd Hollander
Photo by James Leynse

Most everyone has a public persona they show to the outside world. One stripped off only in the comfort of one's own home and only to those to whom you are the closest. But when even the slightest slip of the mask can lead to the loss of everything you're worked for, how far would you go to make sure that shield stays securely on? Such is the scenario playwright Topher Payne offers with Perfect Arrangement. Presented by Primary Stages. the show is having its New York premiere at the Duke on 42nd Street.

1950, Washington, D.C. The Cold War is in full swing and the United States Government is rooting out anyone who may have Communist leanings. Among those involved in this process are State Department employees Bob Martindale (Robert Eli) and his associate Norma (Julia Coffey). Bob is married to homemaker Millie (Mikaela Feely-Lehmann), while Norma's spouse is schoolteacher Jim Baxter (Christopher J. Hanke). The two couples are long time best friends and next door neighbors. However both marriages are shames, or in actuality, covers. For it is Bob and Jim who are in love with one another; as are Norma and Millie. The group coming up with this arrangement four years earlier as way to live together in secret while maintaining a public facade that would allow them to continue their careers in a society that by and large condemns them. Their true relationships hidden from prying eyes via a specially built closet that allows them to move from one apartment to the other without anyone outside their circle being the wiser.

Things change when Bob's superior, Theodore Sunderson (Kevin O'Rourke). explains that their new mission is to remove anyone in government whose actions could make them a target of blackmail. In particular anyone doing something of an unusual or "deviant" nature (i.e. homosexuality). While Bob is okay with this new protocol, Norma is somewhat less so. This leading to the first of many cracks in the four's once impervious shield.

More trouble comes the quartet's way in the form of Barbara Grant (Kelly McAndrew), a translator at the State Department, who's now on the chopping block thanks to her "easy" reputation. Though it quickly becomes obvious Barbara is not someone to sit still when threatened. Barbara noting one can't be blackmailed if you don't care who knows your secrets. That attitude being something Bob and the others feel they cannot afford. The irony here is that Bob is the one who created the system by which the State Department roots out its undesirables. Thus throwing other people under the proverbial bus and becoming a rising star in his job, all the while ensuring his own secrets remain secure and not caring about those outside his immediate circle. The question of whose rights are more important in such a situation being the play's ultimate message.

Payne and set designer Neil Patel have done a good job in recreating 1950s mores. The set of Norma and Millie's apartment looking like something you would find in a television series from that era. Nice, neat and with everything in its place. In a way the setting acts as a metaphor for these character's lives. Perfect and calm on the outside; but underneath far more messy, far more fraught with issues and dramatically, far more interesting. The ladies dresses in particular are perfectly divine - good work by costume designer Jennifer Caprio.

Interestingly, it's the dramatic moments that come across far better than the comedic ones. Part of this has to do with the show's underlying message, the two couples being too constrained by their own fears to come across as even unintentionally funny. Other problems occur because of Michael Barakiva's sometimes unfocused direction, which does not allow the characters to get enough into the specific moments to make any of the comic situations as amusing as they could be. Such misfires occur when Millie recognizes Barbara as someone from her past and tries desperately to disguise herself so she won't be recognized. Other moments at levity, such as Bob trying to fake a cold, or just about anything involving Kitty Sunderson (Jennifer Van Dyck), the wife of Bob's boss, all feel somewhat flat. Kitty in particular coming off as more of a parody than anything remotely resembling flesh and blood, at least in the beginning. The play could easily be done as a farce - the groundwork for it is certainly there - if that was the way Payne wanted to go. But the way the work is structured now, the too-real seriousness of the issues presented works against any attempts at levity.

Another problem is the show's ultimate ending. One where both couples must decide whether or not to take the first tentative steps outside the closet - and not the one connecting the two apartments. This particular (and pivotal) sequence begins well enough, but winds up offering what comes off as three separate endings. The final one stacking things a bit too far in one particular direction. Especially considering the time in which this story takes place and the attitude and feelings of the characters up to that point.

The cast is quite good, with Eli the standout as Bob. The one person most desperately trying to keep his personal status quo unchanged, less the gigantic house of cards he has built come crashing down. Coffey works well as Norma, a woman who eventually finds she can't keep being part of a process she despises. Feely-Lehmann is good as Millie, a person who initially finds herself totally appalled by Kitty and all that she represents. Yet in the end finds herself bonding with her in a moment of crises. O'Rourke is fine as Sunderson, a career bureaucrat with a seemingly easygoing manner, yet someone who can also become quite the son of a bitch when necessary. McAndrew is a nice surprise as Barbara. Someone who, like many of the others, keeps her professional and private lives completely separate. But who in reality may be the most honest of all.

One very telling line, used almost as a throwaway here, can be heard when Jim notes that he'd never be able to get a teaching job if his homosexuality became public knowledge. Those words indicating a reality that lasted far past the red and lavender scares of the 1950s, and even long after the gay rights movement burst into full bloom more than a decade later. It's here the power of the play is truly felt as it shows the almost desperate lengths homosexuals would go in order to appear "normal" to the world at large. The alternative being ostracism, unemployment or far worse. 

Offering quite the thought provoking story, Perfect Arrangement doesn't quite reach its full potential, but still packs an emotional punch. One powerful enough to leaving a lasting impression. 

Featuring: Robert Eli (Bob Martindale), Mikaela Feely-Lehmann (Mille Martindale), Julia Coffey (Norma Baxter), Christopher J. Hanke (Jim Baxter), Kevin O'Rourke (Theodore Sunderson), Jennifer Van Dyck (Kitty Sunderson), Kelly McAndrew (Barbara Grant).

Prefect Arrangement

Written by Topher Payne

Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Jennifer Caprio
Lighting Design: Traci Klainer Polimeni
Sound Design: Ryan Rumery
Wig & Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas
Props Supervisor: Carrie Mossman
Production Stage Manager: Richard A. Hodge
Directed by: Michael Barakiva

Presented by Primary Stages Company
The Duke at 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street

Closed: November 6, 2015

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