The Perils of Playing it Straight |
freeFall stages the local premiere of Topher Payne’s acclaimed Lavender Scare tragicomedy.
BY JULIE GARISTO | Feb. 8, 2019
The post-World War II years blessed us with some of the most fabulous cars, architecture and fashion.
Of course, the era had its underbelly, too. With Jim Crow racial segregation and Sen. Joe McCarthy’s hunt for communists and potential communist sympathizers, too many Americans lived in a state of repression and fear. None more so than the oppression of homosexuals, trans and bisexuals implicated during the Lavender Scare, a little-discussed part of U.S. history that inspired playwright Topher Payne in writing Perfect Arrangement.
Produced by freeFall Theatre for the first time in the Tampa Bay area, Perfect Arrangement explores the indecencies behind the Eisenhower Era’s squeaky-clean facade.
The play’s central characters appear to be the type of mainstream Americans who get carte blanche at every turn. We have the strapping, all-American-Wonder Bread-of-a-guy Bob Martindale (Michael David), who oversees the Personnel Security Board at the State Department. Bob lives in Georgetown next door to his secretary, the lithe and sophisticated Norma Baxter (Megan Therese Rippey). Meanwhile, Norma is “married” to a witty, debonair high school teacher named Jim (Rob Glauz), and Bob lives with “wife” Millie (Jessie Taylor) — a happy homemaker who can recall a Jell-O mold recipe with startling specificity.
But after the workday is over, Bob sleeps with Jim, and Norma snuggles up to Millie.
Their covert plan works out until Bob’s boss, Ted Sunderson (Patrick Ryan Sullivan), tasks him with rooting out homosexuals, promiscuous women and nonconformists from the State Department staff. To the foursome’s surprise, an incriminating coincidence threatens to plunder their seemingly perfect arrangement.
It’s a dysfunctional dilemma with both high jinks and 1950s-style melodrama. Even the serious scenes recall late-show ‘50s movies like Imitation of Life, but it were about gay white people instead of a biracial mother and daughter. Each of the four actors display admirable range in setting both a campy and dramatic tone throughout.
freeFall Artistic Director Eric Davis once again does a fantastic job of eliciting authentic performances and blocking the cast on a galley-style set. A couple of key scenes, however, involve important bits of dialogue spoken by an actor whose back is to the audience a couple of beats too long.
In between Perfect Arrangement’s near-misses and double-entendre closet escapades, two costars provide copious comic relief: Kitty as the obligatory ditz, à la Georgette of the Mary Tyler Moore or Vera of Alice, and way on the end of the type spectrum, Barbara Grant (Nichole Hamilton) entertains us with bon mots and glamour; the unfortunate woman Bob hypocritically targets as deviant for her bisexual and sexually liberated behavior. Also, Sullivan gives a pitch- perfect performance is as the loudmouth, bigoted boss.
Kudos also go to playwright Payne and director Davis for aptly capturing the time period and our perception of it. That said, there’s too much contemporary language during the couples’ “out” scenes. I understand the intention to make the characters appear more raw and real, but they are not traveling in time. (Though a sci-fi Jetsons-style sequel set in the retro-imagined future wouldn’t be a bad idea either.)
The fab costumes by Frank Chavez and Tom Hansen’s lighting and retro set are simply perfect replete with a swinging-door entrance to the kitchen that seems right out of The Dick Van Dyke Show — just the right sitcom-style prop.
The play overall is a must-see, and the message is, sadly, one that we still have much to learn from — that discrimination isn’t always delivered by the obvious haters. Too much judgment and shame thrives within subcultures too.
Barbara Grant puts it best during her final, eviscerating monologue: “The last hurdle we have to overcome isn’t Peurifoy, or Sunderson, or J. Edgar Hoover. It’s people like you, who live this life but are too overcome by cowardice to defend it.”
Perfect Arrangement runs through March 3 at freeFall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. A freeFall Forward talk with dramaturg Timothy Saunders will be featured on Feb. 10 and 17 at 1 p.m., before the Sunday matinee. Stay for a talkback with the cast after Friday performances. $47-$50. Teens/kids younger than 18 pay $25; students, teachers, active military or seniors, $44. (727) 498-5205. For show times, go to freefalltheatre.com.