Perfect Arrangement – The Style At the Time
Photography by Shealyn Jae
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
Topher Payne’s Perfect Arrangement, as directed by Patrick Gorirossi, zips and zings along so merrily for the first hour or so that we might be tempted into thinking that the “arrangement” really isn’t so bad: Millie and Bob Martindale (Ari Juno and Gabe Fremuth) and Norma and Jim Baxter (Holly Gibbs and Nate Krimmel), a quad of upper-crust Washingtonians, live the perfect, white-breaded 1950s dream while sneakily drawing the curtains on secret lives of queer marital bliss. Complicating matters more and more, though, is the fact that Norma and Bob both work for the State Department, an entity who, at the time, was committed to rooting out gays with the ferocity of homophobic truffle pigs. Gorirossi (aided by a spectacular design team) leans into the Mad Menish seduction hard at first, directing with a plastic shine that mimics the wax on the tabletops, the eggwash on the canapés. Is it really so bad, he asks? When the dresses are so lovely and the jobs are so stable, and the Crisco so consistent, and everything fallen so neatly into place? The answer, of course, as he slams into us by the end, is yes, it is really so bad. It really, really is.
Gorirossi is a director with the heart of a curator, his insistence on context in the form of massive timelines and a “register to vote” station in the lobby is welcome, at least by me. This context carries over into his treatment of a, at times, pedantic and unlikely script, heavy on the Very Serious Monologue reminding us that the action is being lensed through early 2000s eyes (when the show was written). But by the time these dragging living room speeches take place, he’s pulled us in with a thousand different clues to his perspective: take the top of the show, with the characters in a seemingly endless tableau. They are frozen, indeed, trapped like flies on flypaper, until overly hot laughter shatters the illusion and sends us sailing into the first scene. Beautiful work.
Gorirossi keeps his cast tightly focused, which helps to navigate through the major tone changes and lends itself to some high, high comedy, especially from Juno and Gibbs (who I could listen to say, accusingly, “Have you been having man sex on my couch?” for the rest of my life). Millie is a consummate housewife who’s role in The Great Ruse is to take gaslighting to the level of sport, if not art – watch as she convinces Kitty (Ebony Jackson, perfectly calibrated, doing a fucking gem of a bubble-headed nitwit) the wife of Bob’s superior, that she’s spontaneously developed dementia. Juno is a bit awkward in moments when they should be letting go, Lucille Ball style, but really, Millie’s situation gets less and less funny when you think about it, and this initial ill-at-ease treatment helps to underscore some truly gut-punching moments near the end. Gibbs’ Norma functions as the heart of the story, and she’s more than up to the task, in fact, this is some of the nicest work I’ve seen from her, incredibly nuanced and heartbreaking. There’s a moment when she’s framed, back to the audience, by the doorway, that I will think about for a long, long time. It’s a rare actor that can do that with her shoulder blades.
I wish that Bob and Jim had been drawn as clearly, but as all of the action takes place in the women’s living room, we get plenty of the gents popping in and out of a closet connecting the two houses (a rather obvious metaphor, but funny) and not a whole lot else. Krimmel’s Jim is a deceptively easy-going type that has some chilling moments of assertiveness in desperation, and Fremuth does his best with Bob, the character with zero arc, for whom stubborn, priviledged stoicism can look like apathy; I wanted to see a little bit more depth from him as Bob struggles to maintain control. Shamire Casselle swans in as a fascinating international translator with quite a past – her wide eyes and spot-on control of her acid-dipped commentary is a scream, and David Forrer holds down the fort with the rather thankless suit that is Bob’s boss, Mr. Sunderson.
Design here is crucial and absolutely lovely, consistent, and nails the feel of the period. Costumes from Heather Johnston are almost characters in and of themselves – the frothing cocktail jackets and glittering opera gowns just more dressing for the never-ending show that is these people’s lives. If anyone is looking for an atomic-era living room, I’d seriously consider hiring Bruce Kapplin to manage it – those Scandinavian lines, that asymmetric wallpaper, and a Sputnik-inspired wall burst spell mid-century money without screaming it.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Queerness is a culture, and culture has a history and Perfect Arrangement would be worth a look just to remember that. Thankfully, due largely to Patrick Gorirossi’s fine direction, it’s far more than a dusty episode easily dismissed and just as easily forgotten. This is living, this is happening now, still (as the pieces of legislation moving through Congress in 2019, helpfully provided in a binder in the lobby, reminds us), the erasure of identity, the closing off of entire systems of support. Arrangement is funny, fun, horrifying, and inspiring, sometimes in the same scene. It’s an achievement.