by John Stoltenberg
I’ll cut to the chase: This play is ready for Broadway. It’s knockout funny, with crackling punch lines. It’s flawlessly constructed—paced like a bubbly farce at times, like a jaw-dropping drama at others. And it’s got a core of sexual political content that puts Neil Simon–ish froth to shame.
The author’s name is Topher Payne. Remember it. Because in Perfect Arrangment—one of three full-length plays debuting in the DC Source Festival—he has gifted the American theater with an instant classic. And if he keeps this up, he’ll have a theater named after him someday.
I’ll try to explain what’s so brilliant about Perfect Arrangement. (I don’t have to persuade the opening night audience; they were on their feet cheering afterwards.)
It begins kind of sit-com-y. (Bear with me here.) It’s set in 1950 in Georgetown, in a very beige period living room shared by Bob & Millie & Jim & Norma. No, they don’t all share the same bed. From all appearances, Bob & Millie are married. As are Jim & Norma. But actually an offstage bed is shared by Millie & Norma. And another is shared by Bob & Jim. Because Bob & Norma work in the State Department, the four of them have devised this nuptial ruse in order—or so they hope—to escape the dragnet that was then purging America of dykes and fags. (That part is historical fact: the so-called Lavender Scare. You can look it up. And check out this trailer for the forthcoming documentary The Lavender Scare: http://kck.st/XJWKZo.)
The comic potential in this setup jump-starts the hilarity as the foursome entertain Bob’s straight-arrow boss Ted and his ditsily clueless wife Kitty. Hiding behind phoney personas is an age-old comic stage device, and Payne reinvents it ingeniously: two lesbians in love pretending to be married to husbands, two gay men in love pretending to be married to wives. (Memo to Broadway producers: If you’re not lucky enough to catch Perfect Arrangement for yourself, you just gotta trust me on this—the belly laughs are nonstop.)
And then—with a sure and steady writerly hand—Payne introduces plot turns and character conflicts that gradually unravel and reveal what’s not “perfect” here at all. An auspicious visit in the first act from Barbara—a State Department employee under investigation—sets in motion events that lead to one of the most profound endings I’ve ever witnessed in a new play. Near the end of the second act, Payne tops everything that’s gone before with a breathtaking scene that rips open a gender divide among the once happy foursome. I can’t in conscience give away any more of Payne’s astonishing story structure, but I have to marvel at how he keeps finding what’s funny. Payne has an uncanny knack for keeping faith with his audience through humor. (Memo to producers: If you’re worried about whether Perfect Arrangement is “too gay” for a Broadway audience, just don’t; that’s silly.) And kudos to the superb Source Festival ensemble (Andrew Keller, Raven Bonniwell, Natalie Cutcher, Kiernan McGowan, Zach Brewster-Geisz, Karen Lange, and Jill Nienhiser) and director (Linda Lombardi), who filled every moment with exquisite panache.