"Two Americas" has long been a theme in U.S. politics. It typically refers to our country's unacknowledged caste system of haves and have-nots, but there's more than one way to explore the duality of a nation built around the idea of being simultaneously separate and united. To better illustrate all this, Perfect Arrangement, a daring, mostly-successful stunt of a play that's currently on stage at Circuit Playhouse, introduces audiences to a piece of theater where tragedy and farce wrap around one another like strands of DNA. It's two distinct plays telling the same hilarious and heart breaking story.
Set in 1950 and in the looming shadows of Senator Joseph McCarthy and F.B.I. chief J. Edgar Hoover, Perfect Arrangement tells the story of two almost perfect nuclear families sharing a thoroughly modern duplex with a secret passageway connecting their apartments — straight through the closet. The symbolism's right on, if a little on the nose. The married couples, both connected to the U.S. State Department by way of employment, are gay and living a carefully built illusion where trust is dependent on deceit. From a macro perspective the two America's essayed in this conjoined, highly enjoyable oddity of a play are an nation protected by the "rule of law," contrasted with an American political system obsessed with "law and order."
The phrases "rule of law" and "law and order" are often treated synonymously in American discourse but they're very nearly opposites. "Rule of law" equalizes and assures us that the law is always the law regardless of a person's faith, race, or station in life. "Law and Order," serves the status quo so serving Americans becomes less important than protecting an "American way of life," which has always been understood to mean white, patriarchal, and heteronormative. This is the crossroads where the tragic and farcical elements of Perfect Arrangement merge as the State Department's mission to purge Communists and Communist sympathizers expands to include drunks, drug addicts, sexual deviants and anybody else whose secret lifestyle might open them up to blackmail and manipulation, compromising the department. That's when State's chief Commie inquisitor Bob Martindale (married to Millie Martindale but in a relationship with Millie's girlfriend's husband Jim Baxter) has to come up with the perfect plan for making people like him and his atypical family outcasts and unemployable. This is also where the play's tone shifts from romantic comedy to psychological horror. It's where the cracks in this perfect union become evident and everything breaks apart again. A new paradigm forms and when Kim Sanders shows up in the role of liberated translator and bon viviant Barbara Grant, the play morphs into an old school battle of the sexes like you've never seen before.
It's tempting to suggest that the entire cast (excepting Sanders who's drop-dead fabulous as Grant) is struggling with material that is, at all times, both farce and tragedy. But that's probably not accurate. The ensemble mostly rises to all occasions but their performances aren't always supported by technical elements in a production that's always a little too normal when it needs to be "NORMAL!!!!" Only Lindsay Schmeling's costumes rise to the sad yet ridiculous occasion.
So what if Danny Crowe works his eyebrows a little too hard hard as Martindale and the typically excellent Michael Gravois can't quite find the dangerous gravity needed to ground a nerdy bureaucrat. Both are ultimately effective and the awfulness of Crowe's final isolation more than makes up for any overarching deficiencies along the way. Similarly, as Martindale's smoking jacket-clad lover Jim, Tad Cameron is better in the play's darker, sadder moments.
The men may have all the real power here but this play belongs to its women. Sanders has never been better and as secret lovers Millie and Norma Claire Clauson and Brooke Papritz effectively intertwine realistic dialogue with copy that could have been lifted from a variety of atomic age TV commercials hawking modern miracles for the homemaker. Although her character's sometimes treated as a comic foil and cultural fetish, Heather Zurowski never makes Kitty Sunderson a joke. Just when you think the bureaucrat's dizzy wife is a little too two-dimensional — a blissfully ignorant proxy for an America that eschews critical thought — Zurowski makes you reconsider.
There's a lot of good theater happening in Memphis right now. A Perfect Arrangement isn't perfect, but it continues the trend.