ST. PETERSBURG — Sen. Joseph McCarthy's name surfaces but once in Perfect Arrangement, a retro 1950s comedy with dark undertones. But his ink-stained thumb print smudges everyone and sends potential targets scurrying for safety.
There is none, of course, and that's what makes Perfect Arrangement at Freefall Theatre both funny and disturbing.
Conservative estimates have more than 10,000 civil servants losing their jobs under McCarthy's anti-communist purge. Less widely known: Nearly half that number were suspected gay men and lesbians, thought to be vulnerable to blackmail even if not communists or communist sympathizers.
Playwright Topher Payne, who dropped out the 10th grade to pursue a theater career, has taken off in recent years, with honors including a best emerging playwright award from the American Theatre Critics Association.
Perfect Arrangement debuted Off-Broadway in 2015. In an interview with Backstage magazine, Payne said he uses comedy to "start layering in a message that you want them to take away."
Freefall artistic director Eric Davis chose the show at least partly to make a statement. "It's easy to see the relevance of this period to our current moment," Davis said in a director's note, "when after a period of advancement for women, minorities and LGBTQ people (among others) there is a pushback from those that see moving in this direction as a threat to American ideals."
For much of the show, that element of message is Perfect Arrangement's greatest strength, underlying its witty banter, wonderfully uncomfortable encounters and over-the-top antics reminiscent of a 1950s sitcom. We learn early on that Bob, the personnel director smoothly played by Michael David, is gay. He's involved with Jim Baxter (Rob Glauz), a teacher who lives next door. Their wives, Millie Martindale (Jessie Taylor) and Norma Baxter (Megan Therese Rippey), are also a secret couple.
Until recently, this "arrangement" has afforded comfort and convenience with little down side. Enter Ted Sunderson, Bob's overbearing boss, with a new directive: Bob must now fire suspected homosexuals.
"These perverts, they have a certain demeanor," Ted explains. "They read motion picture magazines, attend the opera."
Suddenly, the bogus anti-communist mentality both couples had ignored hits closer to home. Patrick Ryan Sullivan makes for a wonderfully dislikable Ted, looming and booming over the other actors. Donna DeLonay adds a nice comic touch as Kitty, Ted's ditsy wife. She's fond of nicknames (labels, too), and got her own by collecting cats. Is she a dangerous loose cannon, or just lonely?
A dynamic settles in early with audiences, similar to the sympathetic vibe that made The Americans so popular
We like this closeted foursome and want them to succeed, even as they actively or indirectly work to ruin the lives of thousands of innocent federal workers. Part of their appeal comes from the playwright's stealth. A strong cast all the way around helps (and while this doesn't always predict quality performances, it's significant that six of the seven in the cast are members of Actors' Equity).
Costumes by Frank Chavez and Tom Hansen's lighting and retro set add playful, satirical touches. Jim, a teacher, wears a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows. Bob the bureaucrat paints the kitchen in macho overalls, but a pink gel colors his white T-shirt. The body language of both couples show that the real bonds here are between the same-sex pairs.
One wardrobe outstrips all others.
Barbara Grant, a translator and outspoken free thinker, stuns in a different Parisian outfit with each entrance. The clothes match her self-expression as she forces the women to confront their own roles in supporting an oppressive system: "If you support them, you're just as bad as they are."
Nichole Hamilton plays Barbara with ferocity and a certain jaded elegance. As tensions peak later on, her entrance triggers the heaviest messaging "layers."
"You know, there will come a time when people like us will stop lurking in the shadows," she says. The two wives, who have taken the lead in breaking free, make similar speeches. This critical segment of the show is on the doctrinaire side, as if the balance had tipped and now art is subordinate to message rather than the other way around. They're important messages, but nearly as heavy handed as those of the red scare they are trying to escape.
Nonetheless, this is an entertaining and thought-provoking show. Kudos especially Taylor's performance as Mille Martindale, the moral center among four conflicted characters.
IF YOU GO
Runs through March 3 at 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Talkbacks with cast after every Friday show. Freefall Forward talks with dramaturg Timothy Saunders on Feb. 10 and 17. $47-$50. Under 18 $25; students, teachers, active military or seniors $44. (727) 498-5205. For show times, go to freefalltheatre.com.