Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Topher Payne's candy-colored Perfect Arrangement starts out as a delightful sex farce, but turns into something much more disturbing near the end. It's almost as if we were going backwards, from the 1963 movie The Thrill of it All to 1955's All That Heaven Allows: from the superficiality of the Kennedy years, straight back to the turbulence and anguish of the postwar era.
Thanks to director Sarah Lynne Holt and her cast, this 2015 play gets a perfect local debut at R-S Theatrics. It begins at that moment when the fomenters of the "Red Scare" were coming up empty in their search for Communists at the State Department. In the first scene,, the Truman Administration moves on to "cleansing" the diplomatic corps of closeted homosexuals, ostensibly out of fears that these men and women could be blackmailed by the Soviet Union, at the height of the Cold War. In the real-life "Lavender Scare" of 1950, 91 people were forced to resign their jobs as a result. And in the play, one of the story's own closeted protagonists is forced into running the purge himself (here, played by the steely Mark Kelley).
And that's just one outrageous irony in a play stacked high with them. Perfect Arrangement has plenty of dry wit early on, but gradually becomes a "discovery of fire" story, like La Cage aux Folles or Fun Home or the 2009 Colin Firth movie A Single Man, where a central gay character's tormented soul is ignited by a vision of a better world, where he (or she) no longer feels like a hunted animal. The inimitable Colleen Backer occupies that revolutionary role in Perfect Arrangement, first as an old fashioned housewife who spouts TV commercial-type endorsements to change any fraught subject, until she's finally forced into the role of an anguished trailblazer.
Mr. Kelley plays her increasingly anguished husband (it's Bob and Millie Martindale), but each is secretly in a committed relationship with their same-sex partner from the adjoining house, who are also pretending to be a heterosexual couple. That's the Baxters (Jim & Norma), played by Tyson Cole, and Sarah Gene Dowling. If this were a 1940s hard-boiled detective movie, Mr. Cole could be a cornered Elisha Cooke, Jr., and Ms. Dowling, a hard-nosed Joan Blondell. They literally "go into the closet" any time they want to pass from one house to the other, for a secret conjugal visit.
Zak Farmer plays Bob's boss Theodore Sunderson, in an unusually quiet, suspenseful performance (in 2019 he'll co-star in New Line Theatre's La Cage aux Folles). And Deborah Dennert (as Kitty Sunderson) joins with Ms. Backer for a string of comical misunderstandings, as the ditzy wife of an Important Man in Washington D.C.
But what cracks everything wide open is the entrance of the State Department's "bad girl," a translator who speaks six languages, Barbara Grant (played with deep mystery and pathos-and no shortage of guile-by Erin Struckhoff). She knows she's on the State Department's blacklist, and her increasingly frequent visits push the Martindales and Baxters to the breaking point. Perfect Arrangement unfolds in a very tidy, logical mannerwith government personnel files that go missing, and incriminating love letters that resurface from long ago. It's an irresistible glimpse into a chapter of American history we might otherwise be tempted to forget.
The furniture is all wrong, and it's definitely lit for comedy, but the women's costumes and wigs are a wonder to behold.
R-S Theatrics' Perfect Arrangement, through December 23, 2018, at the Marcelle Theatre, 3310 Samuel Shepard Dr., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.r-stheatrics.com.
Cast (in order of appearance):