A Perfect Arrangement of Communists and Gays
Atlanta-based playwright Topher Payne makes his New York City debut with a play about the Lavender Scare of the 1950s.
On February 20, 1950, as the Cold War was heating up, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy delivered an address in the Senate chamber about the Communist threat facing the U.S. State Department. Quoting an anonymous top intelligence officer, he remarked, "You will find that practically every active Communist is twisted mentally or physically in some way." While the phrase "twisted physically" conjures up an image of Shakespeare's Richard III, there could be little doubt in 1950 what McCarthy meant by "twisted mentally": The State Department was overrun by homosexuals. As reported by historian David K. Johnson in his book The Lavender Scare, by the following November nearly 600 people had been dismissed from the federal civil service for alleged "perversion." Homosexuality would continue to be grounds for dismissal by the federal government until President Clinton ended the practice with an executive order in 1995.
"When I found out about it, it pissed me off that I didn't already know about it," says Atlanta-based playwright Topher Payne. "The Red Scare is part of the public lexicon; the Lavender Scare is a lesser-known, but really embarrassing chapter in American history." That's what led him to write Perfect Arrangement, a play about two straitlaced State Department employees who root out Commies by day and go home to their gay lovers at night. The play begins performances on September 29 with Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd Street, marking Payne's first production in New York City.
The story follows Bob Martindale (Robert Eli) and Norma Baxter (Julia Coffey), two model State Department employees (seriously, they look like models). While Bob is wed to Millie (Mikaela Feely-Lehman) and Norma is wed to Jim (Christopher J. Hanke), these marriages are just an elaborate ruse to disguise the truth: Bob is with Jim and Norma is with Millie. When Bob is tasked with finding and eliminating homosexuals within the State Department, their house of cards looks like it might collapse around them.
Serious as this topic is, don't expect a lecture on LGBT history and McCarthyism. Perfect Arrangement takes the form of a sitcom-style farce. "Popular entertainment of the time (I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Burns and Allen) contrasted highly with the nightmares parading across the front page of the newspaper," Payne explains. "America was selling a picture of domestic bliss while the press was frantically telling us, 'The Rosenbergs are out to get us; the gays are out to get us; the Russians are absolutely out to get us.' I was fascinated by that interplay of perfection and paranoia."
The delicate dance of perfection and paranoia occasionally became an awkward collision in real life, like when Lucille Ball (star of TV's most popular show, I Love Lucy) was implicated as a Communist to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. While she had indeed registered with the Communist Party in 1936, she testified to HUAC that she never voted that way and even supported a Republican candidate for President (Eisenhower) in 1952. Speaking in front of a live studio audience before a taping of I Love Lucy, Ball's husband and executive producer, Desi Arnaz, squelched rumors about the alleged Communist sympathies of America's favorite redhead by stating, "That's the only thing red about Lucy — and even that is not legitimate."
Payne finds that strange episode of television lore fascinating: "That's one of the craziest things about this difference between what's on-screen and what's in the paper…we're talking about the same person!" He tries to create a similar effect with Perfect Arrangement, as the terror of the era slowly seeps into Bob and Norma's 1950s wonder world.
"We bring the audience into this sitcom land which is beautiful and hilarious," says Christopher J. Hanke, who plays Bob's lover, Jim. "Slowly that starts to erode and we see the cracks." All of the actors talk about what a joy it is to play real, fully fleshed-out characters while also performing slapstick antics and door-slamming comedy.
Farcical as Perfect Arrangement may be, its premise of closeted gays going after other gays in the federal government for their alleged Communist ties is not nearly so ludicrous: Closeted homosexual Roy Cohn served as chief counsel to the Senate Committee on Government Operations. Together with Senator McCarthy (who chaired the committee), he viciously went after alleged Communists and homosexuals within the federal government. (Cohn is now best remembered through Tony Kushner's acidic immortalization in Angels in America.) With that in mind, Payne chose to take this true incident involving misanthropic gays and significantly raise the stakes for the audience.
"Who the hell's going to find Roy Cohn appealing?" he asks. "Have you seen a photo of McCarthy? He looks like a potato. I was thinking of how much more dangerous it would be if it were Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell [stars of the 1940 comedy His Girl Friday]: the kind of folks that when other people meet them, they want to be more like them. That is so much more insidious." And truly, Bob and Norma are incredibly attractive people, presenting an image of perfect heteronormativity that diverges greatly from their real private lives.
That level of hypocrisy would seem to put them firmly in the category of villains, but director Michael Barakiva is not so sure. "The great thing about Topher's play is that all of his characters really want something and pursue it vigorously," he notes. "The character who we believe is the hero becomes the antagonist and then it shifts again. There's never an easy answer."
While audiences will disagree on who's a sinner and who's a saint in Perfect Arrangement, Payne has no doubt in his mind that the real Lavender Scare actually had an unexpected positive consequence: It helped jumpstart the gay rights movement in the United States. "By branding all of these well-educated and outspoken closeted homosexuals with a scarlet letter, the government inadvertently created a force of talented people with nothing left to lose," he insists. "That's when you see the earliest stirrings of genuine organization and a movement toward visibility." Instead of celebrating the 1969 Stonewall Riots as the beginning of the gay rights movement, perhaps we should be commemorating the 1950's so-called purge of the perverts.