Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Based on a true story, Hillbarn Theatre and Conservatory is presenting the 2017 Off-Broadway play Perfect Arrangement, by award-winning playwright Topher Payne. It's is a rip-roaring comedy about a gay couple and a lesbian couple whose partners live with each other in arranged marriages in an era when living as same-sex couples was illegal. But the laughing can last only so long before the real story of the McCarthy age search for so-called deviants begins to cast doubts on how perfect this arrangement can continue to be. Hillbarn's production is not only a masterful mixture of funny TV nostalgia and not-so-funny McCarthy Age trauma; it's unsettlingly and forebodingly timely as red state after red state passes anti-LGBTQ laws.
Whenever outside guests are in the Martindales' apartment, they and their next-door chums the Baxters are clearly the stars of their situation comedy life. Smiles, arm movements, laughter, and voice volumes are all overdone in ways hilariously, reminiscent of the great TV comedies of yesteryear. Canned laughter supports the one-liner remarks as everyone often pauses and looks wide-eyed with ear-to-ear grins to the audience for its response. Scripted lines include periodic commercial plugs for products like Foster's Furniture Cream and Mrs. Franklin's Hand Cream. It is satisfyingly silly and magnificently performed by a dynamite cast with their tongues always placed fully in their cheeks.
In their sitcom roles, Millie Martindale (Amanda Farbstein) is the Lucy of the group, a ditzy housewife at first glance but also the first to show quick wit with grounded truth that hits the point that others miss. She wears flowing, flowered skirts, busies herself around the house in high heels and pearls, and–while always being the most welcoming hostess–does/says everything with great exaggeration. Her husband Bob (Brad Satterwhite) is generally more reserved, strait-laced, and on the verge of being serious even when he is relaxed and having a good laugh with others. Bob works on the Personnel Security Board of the State Department, where he has helped create a system in the past couple of years to identify and remove thousands of security risks among anti-American sympathizers.
Their sitcom neighbors are Norma Baxter (Leslie Wagonner) and her husband Jim (Alex Rodriguez). Norma is pleasantly funny and a good, more level-headed Ethel type to Millie's over-blown Lucy role. She is Bob's secretary in the State Department and is touted to be very much on top of all that goes on there. Jim is a school teacher who is full of nervous energy, giggles in high octaves when he laughs, and moves around the room like a busy little bee.
As soon as the two couples have the apartment to themselves, Jim and Bob grab a quick and sometimes wildly passionate smooch while Norma and Millie lose their sitcom selves and settle on their sofa as a comfortable and loving couple. This apartment is theirs while Jim and Bob hilariously retreat (yet again) into the closet to get to their next-door house that is, to the outside world, the abode of the Baxters. Without the guests, gone are the piped-in laughs and transition music as well as the commercial plugs; but still remaining is a TV set of hollow walls and fake decorations as well as a closet of costumes. For these four in 1950, the boundary between real and fake life is tenuous at best.
The initial episode's dinner party with the two couples and Bob's State Department boss Theodore Sunderson (John Mannion) and his wife, Kitty (Erica Wyman) is where the rather bombastic and big in every way (size, mouth, manners) Theodore announces a new assignment for his favorite guy, Bob. Not only is Bob now to weed out the Commies working in the government, but to that list is to be added "drunkards, loose women, and deviants," all known to be of "general moral turpitude" and "persons vulnerable to blackmail." By "deviants," Theodore clarifies the meaning to be, "Perverts with a certain carriage, demeanor ... [who] read motion picture magazines and attend the opera."
Kitty says, "You don't mean the fags, do you?," though even her husband shies away from using that word outright, but the message is jarring to the other four, who do all they can to hide any reaction.
Once the boss has left and life is back to "normal," Bob and Norma try to convince the other two (and themselves) that this is not a big deal and their living arrangement will not be in jeopardy. But life does not always follow the script we hope has been written for us. Into these lives, two people enter who begin to affect the roles that both Milly and Norma have been comfortable playing and to start a series of decisions that will shake their world and the world around them.
As Kitty, Erica Wyman comes close to stealing the show each time she walks onto the set. She has decided to become Milly's best friend and will not take no for an answer. Kitty is flying out there in space, orbiting like the Sputnik in a universe where she operates on a different wavelength from most others. She takes any suggestion made–even quite outlandish ones–literally and seriously, especially when intended not to be. But she has a big heart and is genuinely sweet (even given the "fag" comment), and somehow, she begins to win Milly over as a best friend. Milly finds that she can talk to Kitty about things she has not been able to talk to others about in a long time, conversations that start her thinking outside this TV Land set where she now resides.
Less welcome is the sudden appearance of a well-traveled woman from the State Department whom Norma has already described as "speaks six languages and the first words she learns in each are 'Don't get me pregnant.'" The adventurous, flamboyant Barbara Grant (Tanya Marie) enters the set looking for Bob, or at least his wife Milly. Instead, she is met by Norma and no one else (Norma, who is supposed to live next door). Immediately, Barbara–who is always dressed in the finest New York and Paris fashion–is more than a bit curious about who Norma really is, with Norma (in sitcom fashion) using every means possible to hide herself from the surprise visitor, whom she immediately recognizes from her past. This visit and subsequent visits by a bigger-than-life Barbara combine sitcom hilarity with McCarthy Era reality to provide the impetus for big changes that threaten the renewal of the next season of what we have been watching as a hit sitcom show.
Director Tyler Christie milks to the hilt every brilliantly conceived scene of Topher Payne's script to direct this (sorry to overuse the word) perfect-cast ensemble in an evening full of both ridiculous frenzy and jarring seriousness. In the midst of the shenanigans, the playwright unveils the roots of what will become the gay rights movement. Christie keeps us laughing up to the point he ensures we gasp with the realization that we are watching a piece of profound history.
Beyond script, direction and cast, much of the evening's laughter (live, not canned) comes from the over-the-top, eye-popping costumes designed by Bethany Deal. From Theodore's red suit to Milly's flowing skirts to Barbara's French hats to Kitty's massive mounds of evening gowns that radiate with color, the parade of '50s fashion is like flipping through pages of the era's Life or Look magazine.
When highlighted by Aya Matsutomo's lighting design and placed within the apartment set created by D'Angelo Reyes that has 1950s TV sitcom written all over it, the costumes really feel right at home. The icing on the cake is the fabulous and funny, hair-sprayed wig and hair designs by Jenny Maupin.
At a time when discrimination of all sorts, types and colors is once again becoming the norm coast-to-coast, when many state governments are on the verge of conducting witch hunts for those they consider "deviant," and the LGBTQ rights won just a few years ago are threatened in state after state, Hillbarn Theatre opens Topher Payne's Perfect Arrangement in a production that is definitely must-see. A two-hour evening packed with early belly laughs ends with an audience stunned in silent awe as we watch a daring chapter of important history being born. Applause, applause, applause–all genuine, none canned–to Hillbarn for the foresight to offer this gift to the Bay Area at this particular and scary time in our history.
Perfect Arrangement runs through March 26, 2023, at Hillbarn Theatre and Conservatory, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.hillbarntheatre.org or the box office 11 a.m. - 3 p.m., Tuesday - Saturday, or call 650-349.6411, ext. 2. Please note: Patrons must wear masks during every performance.