BWW Review: Topher Payne's PERFECT ARRANGEMENT is freeFall Theatre's Finest Show in Years
"There's no tomorrow when love is new/
Now is forever when love is true..." --from "There's No Tomorrow," a 1949 Tony Martin song played during the PERFECT ARRANGEMENT pre-show...
I wasn't expecting it.
I thought PERFECT ARRANGEMENT at freeFall was going to be a total farce, like an episode of Three's Company where Jack actually turns out to be gay. And it started out that way, like a classic TV sit-com with a homosexual twist. It's as if Douglas Sirk directed a Bizarro episode of I Married Joan (call it I Married Jim). Or, instead of The Odd Couple, you can pluralize the title and call it The Odd Couples. It at first plays like a simple farce with a classic plot: It's 1950, the beginnings of the era of Mad Men, and two Washington, D.C. couples, the Baxter's and the Martindale's, are in a "perfect arrangement," pretending to be heterosexual neighbors when, in reality, they are a pair of same sex couples: Jim Baxter is hooked up with Bob Martindale, and Norma Baxter is with Millie Martindale.
Add some colorful characters, including the staunch anti-communist, anti-gay Theodore Sunderson and his ditzy wife, Kitty, and you have comic gold, or at least fool's gold because we aren't ready for the play's true meaning. For more than its half, it seems like a well-written but nothing-special ditty of show, a retro-comedy of sorts. But soon after the mysterious Barbara Grant enters the scene, it turns and then turns again, and PERFECT ARRANGEMENT becomes a "coming out" plea for characters who must take a stand or forever be forgotten by history. That's when it became an emotional wallop that I was not prepared for. It's as if I started watching The Jetsons, and then the cartoon turned into Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. Or Gilligan's island suddenly melds into Robinson Crusoe.
I am still reeling over the show's ending and how I feel gloriously sucker punched by playwright Topher Payne's clever script.
The acting is uniformly outstanding. The two couples are splendid: Jessie Taylor as Millie Martindale starts off as the pretty, sweet wife, and then shows her true fortitude; there's a scene near the end where she really gets to show off her acting chops. Megan Therese Rippey is incredibly layered as Norma Baxter, whose first name is ironically not unlike "Normal," a name toyed with at various stages by calling her "Normi." Her ending scene is a sock in the gut. The very real Rob Glauz as Jim Baxter has his moments of revelation as well, and it's good that the last instant of decision turns out to be his. Michael David as Bob Martindale has the hardest role in the show--the closeted gay man who, as a government worker, must target gay men to out along with the communists. Is he the villain of the piece? Outside of the commie hunters, is there a villain? Or is that job left up to society as a whole where people can only be themselves in secret, or perish?
The great Patrick Ryan Sullivan is commanding, and a little bit scary, as the Better-Dead-Than-Red Theodore Sunderson, who orders Bob to catch the scurrying gay menace as well as the secret commies that lurk "out there." As his wife, Kitty, Donna DeLonay steals every scene she's in. She's that stereotypical 50's robot housewife, an older Stepford clone, who will believe everything told to her and laugh off anything she doesn't understand. Imagine Mrs. Roper mixed with Ethel Mertz, and you get a glimpse of the cartoon aspects of the part. She's not three dimensional, nor is she meant to be. And Ms. DeLonay hits all the comedic high points.
Perhaps best in the cast honors goes to Nichole Hamilton, as the game-changer Barbara Grant. Taller than the rest of the cast, and wearing smashing costumes and headpieces like an unwanted haloes plopped on her head, she knows how to make a memorable instance. Here is a side character who is the one we remember most when looking back on the action of the play. There's something sly and mysterious about her as she slinks across the stage like a fashionable viper with a reptilian smirk across her face. It's an extraordinary turn.
Director Eric Davis doesn't miss a beat. Casting, staging, pacing and tech are all glories, coming together to create something special. PERFECT ARRANGEMENT is a highly entertaining play that pays off much more than we had come to expect.
Frank Chavez's costumes rightly hit the Sirkian elements of 1950's culture, and Tom Hansen's set of a Georgetown duplex has a smart and exquisitely vintage look about it, with lots of areas for the actors to play. This is the era of All About Eve, where the characters drink and smoke (and one flees the room whenever this happens, not because smoking would be dangerous to her health, but because she feared her Mink Stole would reek of smoke). It's a comfy, cozy environment, where characters enjoy their privileged white bread world as they drink from aluminum cups under the cool blue post-War bliss. But underneath it all is subversion of the highest order, a breaking up of the conformist family unit, something that would start to be unleashed a decade or two later when the meaning of what constitutes a family would evolve (the kickstart of the Gay Rights movement--the Stonewall Riots--would occur a full nineteen years later). And I love that the coat closet door is the passage way that the couples use to come to and fro their duplicitous duplex; it may be an obvious joke, but it's an obvious joke that works.
There's sometimes a contemporary feel to some of the dialogue, including the phrase "witch hunts" being used (a phrase more popular now than ever). Because PERFECT ARRANGEMENT specifically takes place in the year 1950, "witch hunts" in regards to the Red Scare and the Lavender Menace had not yet been in common usage. Although the Salem witch trial had been well-documented, the phrase didn't take off regarding the McCarthy hearings until after Arthur Miller's The Crucible opened in 1953, three years following the action of PERFECT ARRANGEMENT.
The ending is one of the most emotionally charged I've experienced in a long time. Some of the characters make certain choices and bravely choose to be themselves, a life-affirming risk in the sad homophobic past of our nation. However, one character is doomed to a lonely, closeted existence. And we feel sorry for that person, who is like so many others trapped in similar circumstances at the time, self-tortured and imprisoned, unable to ever really be themselves.
Rarely do I find myself crying after a show. But this one did the trick. I looked around, and I wasn't alone. This is the finest freeFall show I've experienced since 2016, and one of the best of a very fine year so far.
The ending reminded me of Nora's exit at the end of A Doll's House or the Chief's escape in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I don't use those two titles lightly, nor does this ending pale in comparison. It's heart-tugging stuff, and PERFECT ARRANGEMENT earns every moment of it. It's a devastating conclusion to a play that I first thought would be a mere snicker-fest farce at best. You find yourself crying over the characters' fates--tears of pride for those who escaped a world trapped in the darkness of the closet, and tears of sorrow for any of them that stayed behind. It's an immensely powerful ending to the play, and I doubt I will ever get over it.
PERFECT ARRANGEMENT at freeFall has extended its run thru March 3rd.