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THEATER REVIEW Perfect Arrangement
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times

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Playwright: Topher Payne

At: Pride Films & Plays, 4139 N. Broadway. Tickets: 00-737-0984;; $25-$35. Runs through: Oct. 22

Perfect Arrangement is billed as a comedy and begins as a witty parody of white, smartly dressed 1950s sitcom America. However, the increasingly serious Act II ends up anything but funny. Structurally, as distinct from the ideas expressed in it, the play definitely wants to remain a comedy; but had done so it probably wouldn't have received the several national awards which have come its way ( one from the American Theatre Critics Association of which I'm the immediate past Chairperson ).

It's set in 1950 Washington, D.C., where Bob Martindale ( Eric Lindahl ) is a thirtyssomething up-and-coming State Department bureaucrat, married to socially graceful Millie ( Riley Mondragon ). Bob's secretary, Norma ( Autumn Teague ), is married to Bob's best bud, Jim Baxter ( Lane Anthony Flores ), a school teacher. They live in adjoining Georgetown apartments. In fact, Bob and Jim are lovers and so are Millie and Norma. Their marriages of convenience are the perfect arrangement for insuring their careers and social acceptance in the era of the Red Scare and McCarthyism.

The shit hits the fan when Bob and Norma are ordered to create programs to ferret-out State Department homosexuals ( which actually happened ). Bob's boss ( Armando Reyes ) says homos are men who "read motion picture magazines, attend the opera." A glamorous State Department linguist, Barbara Grant ( Kelli Harrington ), who was a college fling of Millie's, is an additional complication.

It's a recipe for comic triumph—even physical farce—as the four queers game The System, outwit the boss and his dense-as-a-dodo wife ( deliciously funny Amber Snyder ) and outface the cunning linguist ... but that's not what author Topher Payne wants. Instead, threatened with exposure, three of the four decide to come out publically, knowing it will end their careers and, perhaps, subject them to prosecution. It also rips apart the marriages and one set of lovers.

It's a fast-moving show with energetic, solid performances ( and funny performances in Act I ) under director Derek Van Barham, and Noel Huntzinger's period costumes ( chiefly for the women ) are a treat. But it's a heavy load for 1950 when people with such careers to protect would not have revealed themselves.

True, the Mattachine Society was being created then in Los Angeles by Harry Hay, Rudi Gernreich and a few others ... but they were political radicals with less susceptible artistic careers ( although not beyond legal persecution ). The gay characters—three of them, anyway—behave in a contemporary manner at odds with the time and place Payne takes care to establish. He wants his play to be progressive more than comic—and it is—but I wanted to see the couples win because they are gay and clever, not destroy themselves because they feel they must.

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