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If Topher Payne's 2015 Off-Broadway play, Perfect Arrangement, seems like an I Love Lucy episode early on, it's entirely by design. Raleigh Little Theatre's production beautifully evokes mid-century décor and couture, while its cast and director handily project a sitcom atmosphere. But the play cleverly employs laughter to ease the audience into the dark territories of discrimination and persecution that occurred seven decades ago, packing a chilling wallop that resonates with today's headlines.
Bob and Millie Martindale are entertaining in their Georgetown, D.C. duplex apartment in the spring of 1950. He's a successful personnel head in the State Department, and she's the fashionable housewife. Their next-door neighbors – Jim Baxter, the charming high school teacher, and his wife, Norma, Bob's no-nonsense secretary – have joined them. They are suffering through an obligatory cocktail hour with Bob's boorish boss, Ted Sunderson, and his ditzy wife, Kitty.
When Ted announces a new assignment for his trusted employee, it's greeted with congratulations all around. After Ted and Kitty finally depart, the four collapse in each other's arms – Bob with Jim and Millie with Norma. The gay and lesbian partners have been hiding in plain sight by marrying their opposite-gender friends. Heterosexuals to the outside world, they realign privately via a convenient coat closet between the apartments thorough a secret panel (bringing on several appropriate punch lines).
But their "perfect" lives soon begin to crumble. Bob's new assignment is to root out employees of loose morals and deviant behavior, including homosexuals. Before that, Bob and Norma had been patriotically proud to help with the fight against Communism (instigated by the infamous McCarthy hearings), but now they are faced with ruining the lives of others like themselves. The couples really begin to panic when department employee Barbara Grant, under investigation for her flagrant sexual escapes, pushes back by indicating she has damaging information about the foursome's arrangement.
On opening night, a talented cast, guided by sure direction, turned in a highly satisfying performance. Patrick Torres deserves particular credit for not overplaying the sitcom humor, astutely balancing the comedy with the increasing drama while instilling the cast with rich depths of character. Torres also doesn't back away from moments of intimate physicality between partners, keeping them believable and tender.
The cast was still finding where pauses were for laugh lines and tended to drop volume levels on some key lines in the name of natural sounding speech, but these liabilities likely will be corrected after a few more performances.
Payne gives the women more range than the men, and the female roles were portrayed with admirable understanding. Lauren Knott's Millie was cool and collected, amusing when she fibbed through alibis for her true situation and moving when she came to realize that her life was going to have to change. Amelia Sciandra's Norma fully embodied the character's hot-headedness and sharp tongue, affectingly torn between keeping protected and doing the right thing.
Melanie Simmons pulled off a particularly difficult coup, playing the silly, clueless socialite Kitty with enough reality to allow her final scene to reveal unexpected layers. As the seeming villainous Barbara, Christine Rogers oozed distain for the couples' lack of conviction, convincingly opting to live her life as she saw fit.
The male characters aren't written very sympathetically, Payne being conscious that, despite having to hide their orientation, they still have advantages as white men in positions of power. Nevertheless, Paul S. James as Bob and Benoit Sabourin as Jim played out their characters' foibles well. James ably channeled Bob's desperation for control and keeping the status quo, while Sabourin comfortably displayed Jim's more flippant, suggestive nature. As Ted, Jim O'Brien also found dimensions in a role that could have been a stereotypical, overbearing boss.
Jeannine Borzello's apartment setting exudes 1950s chic, from stylish furnishings to pastel colors, warmly enhanced by Cailen Waddell's lighting design. Jenny Mitchell's costumes also beautifully reflect the period, the women's fashions a veritable parade of gowns and hats, as well as casual clothes and loungewear.
Payne works in cautions and commentaries that center on LGBTQ issues, but which can easily apply to anyone who has ever been put down or held back because of who they are or what they believe. He mostly avoids grandstanding, but even the several final speeches that are more obviously polemical can be forgiven because they sound the alarm to be vigilant anytime human rights are threatened.
Perfect Arrangement continues through Sunday, November 12. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.