The Perfect Arrangement of Historical Drama and Comedy

By Sheri Berger

Perfect Arrangement, Theatrix, Thursday November 3, 2022 7:30PM

Theatrix is one of my favorite stages. I love the creative energy there, brimming with enthusiasm and a passion for theatre. Perfect Arrangement by Topher Payne is the perfect play for this student-run theatre to present in this space. It is full of laughs, light-hearted fun, and true love – yet full of social awareness, a dark truth of American history, and the survival of homophobia and misogyny.

This play is directed by Trace Harre. The theme for their season is the “Season of Revelation.” Perfect Arrangement is labeled as a comedy and is a Samuel French Inc. production, licensed by Concord Theatricals. The play premiered at the Source Festival in Washington DC in June of 2013 and opened off-Broadway at Primary Stages in September 2015. This is a newer play about two couples in the 1950’s…but they are not ordinary couples!

The two married couples, Bob and Millie Martindale, and Jim and Norma Baxter are, in fact, not couples in love at all. The real couples who are in love are Bob and Jim, and Norma and Millie – and their marriages are a cover to the rest of the world. This “perfect arrangement” was the invention that Bob put together, who is also the head investigator for the State Department – and Norma is his secretary. The apartment where they live is very fittingly equipped with a closet which has a secret entrance to another part of the apartment shared by Bob and Jim. 

I think it’s helpful to note a little bit of history here, since a person unaware of what happened in the 1950’s – 1980’s might deem this play as having a fictional premise. It is, in fact, based on historical events. You may have heard of the “Red Scare” and McCarthyism in the 1950’s. This is where the government rounded up anyone suspected of being a Communist, called them “subversives” and put them on trial. In 1950 Senator Joseph McCarthy made a claim in which he knew the names of 205 known communists working at the State Department, and then in a speech on the Senate floor he made the link of homosexuality to communism. 

And McCarthy wasn’t the only one to make these claims. Eisenhower, who ran with Richard Nixon for President in 1953 had a campaign logo of “Let’s clean house.” They used this logo to try to win elections, even though they both probably didn’t believe it was a real threat to our nation.

The “Red Scare” then morphed into “The Lavender Scare”, in which “lavender” was the code word for homosexual. The policy supported the firing of suspected gay and lesbian people who worked in the State Department. It was believed homosexuals had infiltrated the government, and were a threat to national security. Their supposed reasoning behind this was because their secret made them more apt to be blackmailed, and therefore should be removed from their jobs. To this day, there was no evidence of even one person accused was someone who had betrayed their oath, but it’s estimated 5,000-10,000 people were fired over this period of time. Because of this belief, it formed a policy that no gays or lesbians would be able to have jobs in the State Department. Anyone could be suspected of this for wearing unusual clothing, or even getting calls from women. The State Department would call employees into their offices for interrogation, without being allowed to have an attorney present, force them to confess and reveal the names of other homosexuals they knew. All of them and the people they named were fired and made to be unemployable. Some people’s lives were so destroyed that they committed suicide. 

Even though McCarthy ended his crusade in 1957, the damage was done. Laws in regards to gays and lesbians became standard policy, especially in the NSA and the FBI. This line of thinking emboldened others in authority in other areas of our country to persecute people long after.

Bob, in this play, was the person responsible for interrogating and firing people who were suspected of homosexuality or had a complaint lodged against them. Norma, as his Secretary at the State Department, wrestled with their role in watching the lives of good people, some innocent of the charges and some not, be destroyed.

The opening scene of this play is set up a bit like a 1950’s Leave it to Beaver style scene:  three couples having a dinner party. Bob (Eli Smith) and Millie (Hannah Shelby) have invited Bob’s boss Theodore (Henry Walker) from the State Department, and his wife Kitty (played by Lucy Graff). Also in attendance is Jim (played by Bruno Andrade) and Norma (AnnaLeesa Telford). Despite the heavy premise of this play, it is clever and funny. Lucy Graff who plays Kitty, has several comedic moments which she plays up skillfully. Kitty is probably not the sharpest pencil in the box, but she might just have the biggest heart. Henry Walker, who plays Theodore, does a great job with his role as a bullying boss, who also sometimes breaks out into a peculiar awkwardness when he tries to bond with Bob as just a “regular guy.” 

As the investigations at the State Department continue, Millie encounters a woman who is on the list of suspects to be interrogated, Barbara Grant, played by Imonie Jones. Imonie emulates being the sophisticated and unapologetic woman of the time. Though Barbara might seem as one of the antagonists of the story, she really isn’t. She is a woman who is being targeted by a witch hunt that would destroy her reputation and her livelihood, and is understandably ready to defend herself.

Norma, played by AnnaLeesa Telford and Millie, played by Hannah Shelby seem to have a stronger connection than Bob and Jim. Both AnnaLeesa and Hannah played their roles beautifully together. Millie is a talented writer, who has given up her poetry for a career as the Homemaker for the two couples. She also has a zest for life and new experiences. Norma is struggling with her role and with Bob about how to handle the stress of the witch hunt at work, as she longs for a child with Millie.

The playwright spent time developing the female characters, and I would have personally liked to have seen more development of the male characters in the script. In my opinion, Jim’s character and his relationship with Bob deserved to be explored a little more. But regardless of this, Bruno Andrade, as Jim, pulled off some great comedic moments that relieved the tense subjects being discussed.

It is interesting to note that Bob and Jim, even though they had so much in common with Millie and Norma, were still very much men of their time. They felt the need to control Millie and Norma, and exclude them from how to solve the problem of Barbara Grant. The script did a great job at showing an example of how Norma’s own money she earned was withheld from her at the bank because Jim asked the bank to not allow her to withdraw it. 

Bob is an interesting character and while it seems he might be complex, he is a narcissist, and is fascinated by his own authority. Though he is gay, he is as misogynistic and controlling as any other male of this time. It has reminded me a little of the myth and stories about J. Edgar Hoover. Bob’s character is rooted in male control, hypocrisy, and I would say the true antagonist of this story. This character is a heavy lift, and Eli Smith does a skillful job of playing this antagonist, because you think you like him, and then reconsider.  

I don’t want to spoil the wonderful twists and turns in this play – because it’s a wonderful slapstick comedy that Theatrix has created. These seven students have accomplished a hilarious and highly entertaining play. I hope that their work encourages the audience to dig deeper and have conversations about civil rights. 

There are some sensitive language and themes in this play and Theatrix has consulted with Pat Tereault, Director of the LGBTQIA+ center on the UNL Campus in order to bring a better understanding of the time. And if you’ve never seen an actual dial phone from these times, Theatrix has that too, which I found to be an enjoyable and memorable detail. 

The play ends without a lot of resolution about what ultimately will happen to these characters. You hope they all go on and do incredible work to bring about change. However, there’s a couple things history does tell us, so you can research further if this play moves you to do so.

The first person known to speak out against the Lavender Scare policies was Frank Kameny, who had a PhD from Harvard and was an astrologer who was fired from the US Army’s Map Service for being outwardly gay in 1957. Without support from the ACLU, he organized picketers in front of the White House and Capitol Hill, where he also testified in 1963. 

In 1980, James (Jamie) Schoemaker, a linguist for the government was interrogated, given a polygraph test, read his rights and fired for being gay. With Kameny’s help he fought the charges and was rehired, with the condition that he would tell his family he was gay. And in 1995, the last vestiges of Eisenhower’s orders were finally put to an end by the Clinton Administration.

As for women being allowed autonomy over their finances, women weren given the right to have their own banking accounts in the 1960’s. However, they weren’t eligible to open a line of credit or take out a loan until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974.

You won’t want to miss this crazy comedy that not only will make you think, but make you laugh. All of these students did a fantastic job! I usually like to give kudos to the people behind stage but the program didn’t give that detail. However, it does mention the Theatrix Management Team: Gage Boardman, Artistic Director; Hannah Shelby, Managing Director; Oliva Schmitz, Production Manager; Mo Benes, Technical Director; and Payton Schaefer, Graphic Designer. Theatrix Council Members: Mariana Hermosillo, Assistant Artistic Director; Jackson Wells, Assistant Managing Director; Syrin Weeks, Assistant Production Manager; and Evan McFadden, Assistant Technical Director. Theatrix Faculty Advisors are Jamie Bullins and Ann Marie Pollard.

If you go: Perfect Arrangement runs November 3, 4, 6 at 7:30PM with a matinee on November 6 at 2PM. Tickets are $7 General Adminission and $5 for Students and should be purchased online. Theatrix is a student-run theatre company in the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film.

Sheri Berger is a business minion, dog momma, arts groupie, and co-host of the Platte River Bard Podcast with her husband, Chris Berger.

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