‘Perfect Arrangement’ brings America’s gay witch hunt to Tampa Bay

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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America celebrated the rise of the sitcom in the early 1950s, collectively declaring “I Love Lucy.” But as the country welcomed the golden age of television, fear-mongering politicians in D.C. were only seeing red.

That’s because Sen. Joseph McCarthy had introduced the second Red Scare to the masses, claiming that communists had infiltrated the U.S. federal government. Perhaps even more dangerous, Republican leadership asserted, were the gay men and lesbians who had done the same—deemed communist sympathizers and security risks susceptible to blackmail due to their homosexuality. Their hatred gave way to the Lavender Scare, a parallel witch hunt and the mass firing of gay and lesbian federal workers in the early 1950s.It’s within that time period’s love for Lucy and loathing of lavender that Topher Payne’s “Perfect Arrangement” takes place. The award-winning show, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2015, makes its Tampa Bay debut at St. Petersburg’s freeFall Theatre Jan. 26 and runs through Feb. 24.

“It’s 1950, and new colors are being added to the Red Scare. Two U.S. State Department employees, Bob and Norma, have been tasked with identifying sexual deviants within their ranks,” its synopsis reads. “There’s just one problem: Both Bob and Norma are gay, and have married each other’s partners as a carefully constructed cover.”

Bob, married to Millie—and Norma, married to Jim, are respectively portrayed by Michael David, Jessie Taylor, Megan Therese Rippey and Rob Glauz. Their tale, “inspired by the true story of the earliest stirrings of the American gay rights movement,” features “classic sitcom-style laughs” that “give way to provocative drama as two ‘All-American’ couples are forced to stare down the closet door.”

The closet door is both figurative and literal, intentionally so. The couples share a duplex connected by a closet.

“Of course, by no mistake, they pass back and forth between these two units through the closet,” muses freeFall Theatre Artistic Director Eric Davis, also the production’s director. “It leads to a lot of really silly, fun kind of farce in the show, but it also sets up a big cathartic moment that happens near the end of the play.”

The playwright “is really playing off of some of these stylistic things that we associate with the 1950s and performances from the 1950s, especially in TV sitcoms,” he continues. “He bounces back and forth between a style that feels more like a sitcom that’s very heightened; very sort of aware of itself as performance, and then one that feel a little bit more honest.”

That’s part of the reason Davis chose to arrange theatergoers in freeFall’s “avenue” seating configuration, utilized at least once per season. The production will have two audiences facing one another as they watch the play.

“So you’re also watching an audience watch the show,” Davis says. “That does really interesting things in comedy, because you watch someone laugh and it makes you laugh. It can feed the comedy in a really interesting way.” Similarly, it affects the drama. “There are some intimate moments in the piece where it will be intriguing to see the audience watching another audience.”

“What’s really interesting to me is the layering of styles,” Glauz says of playing Jim, “not just taking on the 1950s performance for the outward public but the layers of style for each other that the characters give.

It’s broken down over the course of the play … we see different kinds of performances, not just gay people performing heterosexual for other heterosexual people.”

The actor says he was interested in the stereotypical idea that people have of gay men, especially in comedy. “I think about Jack in ‘Will and Grace’ as an example. At the time it was a way of introducing straight people to gay people in a way that was appealing, palatable and non-threatening,” Glauz says.

“That’s something I’m really interested in seeing how I can twist into the play a little bit,” he continues, “how we can sort of peel that back as well in the performance. Jim performs straight, he also performs this idea of gay, for others and for himself. What is underneath that?”

Glauz believes that’s something many in the LGBTQ community eventually come to terms with and can relate to. “Finding out who they really are underneath what they’ve been performing for their entire lives, that’s a journey that I’m really interested in exploring.”

“The show goes back and forth in various ways,” Davis elaborates, “swinging back and forth between the characters being honest and them lying, really. Even though it’s heightened and sort of a farce in the things they’re covering up and revealing, I think there’s something incredibly relatable to gay people about that—especially to gay people who have at some point in their lives, or in some context of their lives, felt the need to hide who they really were.

“I think it’s very relatable and I think it’s also a really funny way to present it,” he says, “one that’s really honest to what’s happening in those dynamics.”

It’s another part of what drew Glauz to the show. “It’s so interesting doing a piece that’s so meaningful and asks these difficult, sometimes dark questions for it to also be this kind of farce,” he says. “In a world that seems hopeless, the question of, ‘Do I make the best of my situation because the chances that things are going to change seem so minimal? Ought I to do that, or should I sacrifice my lifestyle in order to make things better for hopefully my grandchildren?’ That resonates with me.”

Davis asserts that “Perfect Arrangement” is “a spoonful of sugar type of show, where the world the characters are living in is life or death for them. It’s whether their lives as they want them to be can go on or whether their lives are destroyed.”

He notes that “strangely, of course, there’s not one documented case of a gay person ever actually being blackmailed for secrets” during the Lavender Scare.

“It was literally a witch hunt in the truest sense,” Davis continues. “Although the term ‘witch hunt’ has recently been appropriated by a certain orange gentlemen to mean actual crimes that have been committed and are actually being investigated, this was the true sense of the Salem Witch Trials type of witch hunt. They were hunting after something that’s a shadow in the dark.”

It makes the perfect backdrop for the tale because “all comedy should be life or death,” Glauz insists. “That’s what makes it funny. There’s a lot of hope in the play which I like a lot; as difficult as this subject matter becomes, I think there’s a message of striving toward a better life.”

“One of its main themes I think that people take away from it is how to position yourself to be on the right side of history,” Davis adds, calling it relevant today. He says it illustrates “what happens to those who make the sacrifice in the time that something is happening and what history says of them.”

“Love is love, and we see it in many forms in this piece,” he also notes. “This is a wonderful production with incredible actors and a great play that’s so much fun. I think it’s a really special piece and I’m excited for our audience to see it.”

Topher Payne’s “Perfect Arrangement” plays every Wednesday—Sunday at freeFall Theatre Jan. 26-Feb. 24. Talkbacks will follow each Friday night performance (except Jan. 25) and foreword talks with dramaturg Timothy Saunders will take place Feb. 10 and 17. To purchase tickets ranging from $37 to $50 or for more information, visit freefalltheatre.com or call 727-498-5205.

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