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Two couples who are not as they seem. From left to right, Larry Davis, Bryan Lee, Kristin Kalbli and Barbara Cole Uterhardt.

Two couples who are not as they seem. From left to right, Larry Davis, Bryan Lee, Kristin Kalbli and Barbara Cole Uterhardt.

The two couples in Topher Payne’s new play Perfect Arrangement, playing through October 4 at Decatur’s OnStage Atlanta, seemingly have the perfect arrangement

Bob and Millie Martindale (Larry Davis and Barbara Cole Uterhardt) live next door to friends James and Norma Baxter (Bryan Lee and Kristin Kalbi) in 1950s Washington D.C. To the outside world, they’re respectable young newlyweds living in flawless adjacent Georgetown brownstones. What others don’t realize is that the four of them actually make up two gay couples: at night, the couples do some crafty place-switching (the residences connect through a secret door accessed, appropriately enough, through a closet) so that James and Bob can live their lives together as do Millie and Norma. 

The arrangement was masterminded by the efficient and practical Bob, who works for the State Department. Things get complicated (and the arrangement reveals itself as less-than-perfect) when Bob’s boss demands that he start identifying and firing “deviants” as part of the Pink Scare of the 1950s, when thousands of gay employees were weeded out from government positions due to paranoia about vulnerability to blackmail.

The play, which is having its Atlanta premiere with the Process Theatre Company at OnStage Atlanta, had its world premiere at DC’s Source Festival, where it was a huge hit, earning an extended run and glowing coverage in the Washington Post

For the play, Payne received the Osborn Award from the American Theater Critics Association, one of the most prestigious American awards for an emerging playwright. 

It’s not hard to see why the play earned such honors. The drama poses complex moral questions in crystal clear dramatic situations, and it addresses them with an airtight efficiency. Payne’s is a self-conscious sort of theatricality. He typically creates an old-school sort of stage artifice which is pierced with mordant one-liners, and it all works especially well in this context. The couples put forth a perfect pretense of a Leave it to Beaver existence which is slowly revealed as a troubled and unsustainable sham: situation comedies have always been an influence on Payne’s work, and here the influence is being sliced open, rather than adhered to.

Process Theatre has assembled a fine cast for the show. I especially admired Amanda Cucher as the brazen linguist Barbara Grant, whom Bob is forced to fire from the state department for her loose morals, though in the end she doesn’t go quietly. Cucher has a plain-spoken defiance, which can be sinister (she is the force that threatens to expose the entire ruse) and heroic (she refuses to submit to hypocritical 1950s moral codes).

Occasionally — as when Millie, in front of visitors, rattles off the benefits of various household products in a parody of the perfect 1950s housewife — the depiction of a double life becomes a knowing wink directed at the audience. We’re removed from the characters by several layers of irony, by the artifice of the play’s flawlessly airtight, old-fashioned structure, in such a way that when all the pretense and safety are finally stripped away, we feel somewhat distanced from the very real emotions that are being revealed in the second act. 

Still, Payne is a master at finding the right subject for his style, diving in with full interest and finding the humanity in even the most seemingly unsympathetic characters and extreme situations.

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