A ‘Perfect Arrangement’ delivers sharp-witted satire with a twist of modern McCarthyism
- Written by Tina Farmer
Strong performances, insightful direction and scripts that entertain and provoke thought are established hallmarks of R-S Theatrics. But their production of Topher Payne’s bitingly funny ‘Perfect Arrangement’ takes things up a full step. The riveting drama with a darkly comic sensibility uses the McCarthy era to explore issues of prejudice and discrimination that still impact the personal and professional lives of the LGBTQA community today.
Coworkers Bob Martindale and Norma Baxter are also long-time friends and next-door neighbors. Responsible for identifying undesirable or potentially vulnerable government employees (those sympathetic to communism or an easy target for communist manipulation), they do great work and are quite patriotic. So, it isn’t a surprise when, after an evening out with boss Theodore Sunderson and their spouses, Sunderson informs them he has a new assignment. They are to identify the deviants in government service – the loose, immoral and/or homosexual employees who may also be targeted.
Bob and Norma quickly agree to assist and tell the boss how honored they are by his confidence in their work. After drinks and some casual homophobic banter, the boss leaves and Bob, Norma and their spouses Millie and Jim are left to reflect on the evening. The truth is, the couples are married for convenience and appearances. Bob and Jim are partners as are Norma and Millie. Now that the government has come for them, how will they respond? Just that quickly, the show turns from glib and chatty into a complex drama filled with dark humor, manipulation and uncertainty.
Mark Kelley and Sarah Gene Dowling anchor an exceptional cast in a thoughtfully provocative production that refuses to accept easy answers. Colleen Backer and Tyson Cole compliment as their partners and Zak Farmer, Deborah Dennert and Erin Struckhoff provide outstanding support. The story is complex, as is the layered and purposefully stylized dialogue. Shifts in tone, posture and non-verbal context are key to the production’s success, and Sarah Lynne Holt directs with clarity emphasized by an eye for detail and precise timing.
Dowling and Backer provide much of the emotional context as well as the humor, while Kelley doggedly works to convince the others that he and Norma can handle the task without jeopardizing their future. His view is incredibly myopic and it’s startling how casually he judges and disparages others for their “moral transgressions.” Farmer and Dennert are offhandedly and unconsciously racist, homophobic and misogynistic as the Sundersons, while Struckhoff plays coworker Barbara Grant, a frequent recipient of Bob’s cruelest criticisms, with the perfect mix of Miss Manners and Gloria Steinem. The actors occasionally veer ever so close to cartoonish, but even this is done with pointed purpose, such as when Millie and Norma effuse about their favorite products by brand name in a clever bit of misdirection.
Backer and Cole each face life-changing decisions and both believably and fully embrace the characters, making choices that may initially surprise but quickly reassure a contemporary audience. While Dowling’s character is more steadfast, she too must make a choice. The cost of that choice is expressed so completely by Dowling, each calculation moves across her entire face and body in a succession of waves until you think she might crumble from the weight. All of this is mirrored in Kelley’s wide-eyed and incredulous smack across the face realization that he may no longer have everything under control.
R-S Theatrics production of “Perfect Arrangement,” continuing through December 23, is not always easy to watch, but it is captivating and impossible to turn away. Kelley’s performance is so convincingly shrewd it’s likely to make you squirm, while Dowling will pull compassion and perhaps a few tears. Focused direction by Holt, an outstanding cast and a well-written script remind us that while we’ve come a long way, we are still targeting others as scapegoats and failing to address problems of exclusion, opportunity and equal protection under the law for all.