By Joanne Engelhardt
Topher Payne’s 2014 production Perfect Arrangement seems horribly out of date even though written a scant nine years ago. That’s why it’s surprising that Foster City’s Hillbarn Theatre and director Tyler Christie decided to make it part of the 2022-23 season.
Although it’s played mostly for laughs – as in I Love Lucy laughs – it’s really about a very difficult time in U.S. history.
It’s set in the 1950s at a time when Joe McCarthy was holding congressional hearings to root out communists holding government positions, and later expanded to uncover homosexuals who might also work for the government.
…D’Angelo Reyes’ scenic design is a highlight…
Two of the four lead characters (Brad Satterwhite as Bob Martingale and Leslie Waggoner as Norma Baxter) both work for a government department that will soon be assigned to go after such security risks. The irony is that Bob and his real-life partner, mild-mannered Jim Baxter (Alex Rodriguez) as well as Norma’s flighty real-life partner Millie Martindale (Amanda Farbstein) reached an interesting agreement four years earlier: The foursome live “next door” to each other so that it appears as if they are all good friends and neighbors.
In reality, they go into an obviously symbolic closet full of clothes at night so that they can spend their evenings with their same-sex partners.
Much of the humor comes from people constantly showing up at Millie and Norma’s apartment when one of the men is there – and one of the women isn’t. Then it’s up to the remaining woman to explain where her husband is – or why her female friend is there instead.
The play starts out during a cocktail party, supposedly put on by Millie and Bob, attended by Bob’s boss, Ted Sunderson (John Mannion) and his ultra-rich, ultra-snobbish wife Kitty (Erica Wyman).
Time-out right here: Does anyone notice that Millie brings in gigantic cocktails festooned with little umbrellas, hands them out to the partygoers, and then, after taking one sip of their drinks, the Sundersons leave?
Faux paux 2: Millie collects everyone’s drinks and takes them back into her kitchen. What kind of party is this???
Christie’s direction is anything but subtle. Wyman’s wealthy Kitty seems to enjoy lording it over the other women. She invites Norma to go to the opera with her, which gives costume designer Bethany Deal an opportunity to come up with some lovely long gowns and mink stoles.
D’Angelo Reyes’ scenic design is a highlight. The expansive stage looks exactly what you’d expect of a large living room/dining room from the 1950s complete with a stone fireplace, a wall-mounted clock and comfy couch.
Another rather weird stage direction happens at the play’s end. One at a time, all four of the main characters decide to stop hiding their true identities, even though it means leaving their loving partners. One by one they walk to the center front of the stage, stare off into space a moment, walk two steps down to audience level, look left and walk off, leaving the audience wondering exactly what that means and what happens to them after that.
FINAL NOTE: ALERT! For the remainder of the run of Perfect Arrangement, the role of Bob will be played by Alex Kirschner due to the fact that Brad Satterwhite broke his leg! and is unable to continue performing. Get better soon Brad!
Aisle Seat Executive Reviewer Joanne Engelhardt is a Peninsula theatre writer and critic. She is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
|Written by||Topher Payne|
|Directed by||Tyler Christie|
|Producing Company||Hillbarn Theatre|
|Production Dates||Thru Mar 26th|
|Production Address||1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404|
|Reviewer Score||Max in each category is 5/5|
|Aisle Seat Review PICK?||----|
|"[A] clever canapé of a comedy... Mr. Payne is a deft and witty writer."||The New York Times|
|“As hiding gets harder, pitch-perfect comedy ensues: slamming doors, strange disguises, preposterous excuses [….] Eventually, the four must decide whether face-saving domestic lies are worth it, or whether ostracism beats living in fear. In our own era of surveillance and paranoia, their mid-century problems don’t feel so far away.” ||The New Yorker|
|"This is truly what a play should be. Thought-provoking, but with loads of laughs, this terrific show strikes the perfect balance between harsh social criticism and comedy."||Triangle Arts & Entertainment|
|"The best thing about Topher Payne’s fabulous "Perfect Arrangement" is its pitch-perfect capture of the 1950s comic voice, and its application to the dreadfully serious drama."||DC Theatre Scene|
|"Introduces audiences to a piece of theatre where tragedy and farce wrap around each other like strands of DNA. It's two distinct plays telling the same hilarious and heartbreaking story... "Perfect Arrangement" drags history out of the closet."||Memphis Flyer|
|"At a time when discrimination and witch hunts are increasingly becoming the norm again, Theatrical Outfit’s new Perfect Arrangement feels like a lot more than just snappy entertainment — it’s mandatory, topical viewing, as well as a glimpse back at a sad moment in history."||ArtsAtl.Org|