The Brylcreem gloss on Topher Payne's sitcom-style comedy Perfect Arrangement is designed to juxtapose its turbulent era. It's 1950, and McCarthyism is scaring America while the Civil Rights movement is gearing up to sweep the country. But there's another war brewing beneath the clean-cut, apron-and-pearls exterior: the Lavender Scare.
This witch hunt for homosexuals in the government led to the mass firing of federal employees, and reached its peak in 1953 when President Truman signed an executive order that made "sexual perversion" a legal excuse not to hire. Though that law is still three years away in Payne's play, it looms large over the two couples at the story's center.
Bob and Millie Martindale and Jim and Norma Baxter could just as easily be the Ricardos and the Mertzes — if Lucy and Ethel were a lesbian power couple and Ricky and Fred enjoyed saucy make-out sessions. These marriages of convenience are made even more convenient by a secret door (located, hilariously, in the coat closet) that adjoins their two Washington, D.C. apartments.
Bob (Kevin Moore) is a State Department official who's charged with uncovering Commies, with the help of loyal secretary Norma (Olivia Grace Murphy). School teacher Jim (Matt Holmes) and housewife Millie (Alyssa Cavazos) round out the charade, with everyone often gathering in Norma and Mille's midcentury mod apartment (designed by Kevin Brown) to make decisions as a foursome.
Director B.J. Cleveland plays up the satire to start, with major help from Lindsay Hayward as the ditzy wife of Bob's boss, a blustering big shot played by Bradley Campbell. Though Hayward does lean into the over-the-top comedy of her character, Kitty, she also knows when to pull back and offer up real emotion as she bonds with Millie. She's also the only woman who's costumed well by Suzi Cranford and Jessi Chavez, with the other gals thrust into ill-fitting dresses and suits and topped with frazzled wigs by Coy Covington.
That "Honey, I'm home!" tone also dissipates when Bob and Norma learn that their new task is to root out perceived perverts, and realize that the public at large is ever closer to discovering the quartet's secret. With people getting fired for as little as "loitering in Lafayette Park" (an accusation based on real-life cases), it's not hard to see how their idyllic arrangement is threatened.
It's also a development that spurs Norma to take action and seize the true life she's always wanted, and Murphy practically sizzles as she confronts the injustice of the charade society has forced her to lead.
Also done with personal (and personnel) judgments is the fiery Barbara Grant, played with haughty confidence by Jacie Hood. She's part of the equation in a way that we'll keep top secret for now, but her character is the figurehead for a much-needed thread about women's rights in general.
But the token acknowledgements about two other issues that are also still ongoing today — equality for women and blacks — drop like lead in Payne's otherwise nimble script. Hearing two white men try to argue (without a shred of satire) why their causes deserve priority leaves a bad aftertaste that can't even be blamed on the Jell-O mold.
Uptown Players' production of Perfect Arrangement runs through September 2 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.