Polite Society in the 1950s was a real bitch. Even though people boasted impressive homes, state-of-the-art kitchen gadgets, impeccable manners, and fabulous wardrobes, hats, and hair, underneath the smiles and flawless appearances were plenty of dark secrets. Some that — for the era — were career- or even life-threatening.
Dezart Performs’ lavish production of Topher Payne’s Perfect Arrangement, which opened Friday and runs through Jan. 20 at the Pearl McManus Theater in Palm Springs, tells the story of two couples living a double life. On the outside, everything seems safe and garden-variety: Bob and Millie Martindale are a seemingly happily, seemingly hetero-normative pair living blissfully next door to their best friends, the seemingly similarly coupled Jim and Norma Baxter.
The reality, however, is that both unions are a lie, covering up the fact that the two women are actually an item as are the two men. It’s a terrific ruse until Bob, a World War II veteran, who now works for the government, is suddenly tasked with eliminating so-called deviants from the country’s employ under the direction of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Investigations of a person’s sexuality were de rigeuer in the government workplace during the 1950s and 1960s. Known as the Lavender Scare, the goal was to weed out civil servants who identified — or were identified by others — as LGBT. Homosexuals of the era were thought to be perverted, full of sin, and just as dangerous as communists, people of color, divorcées, and even those whose list of intimate partners numbered beyond a socially acceptable amount. And because these folks were thought to be mentally and morally lacking, it was evidently logical to assume they couldn’t keep secrets and therefore posed a threat to national security.
Barbara (left, played by Yo Younger), is pretty sure Norma (Olivia Saccomanno) is hiding something.
Under the expert direction of Michael Shaw, this pretty production of Perfect Arrangement is pretty near perfect. The attractive and well-cast players shine beneath their gorgeous, colorful, and elaborate costumes by Michael Mullen and supreme wigs by James Geier. Mix in the exquisitely detailed set by Thomas L. Valach, and we are uncannily transported back to 1950s America in a remarkable and wonderful way. Visually, the production is a true masterpiece, an evocative canvas on which to paint a lighthearted period piece that, despite appearances, turns out to be anything but light.
As Millie, Bob’s wife, Phylicia Mason is terrific, if a bit over the top in a Julianne-Moore-Far-From-Heaven sort of way. Though she knows her place in public and does her best to stay there, in private she’s observant, brave, and even fierce, and Mason traverses the two personas seamlessly.
Yo Younger, who is lovely and kind offstage, once again demonstrates her adeptness for mastering dark, devious, and deeply resentful characters. As the main villian of the piece — aside from the government, obviously — she offers up plenty of surprises in a scrupulously layered performance.
In the role of Kitty Sunderson, a well-meaning soul who manages to be oblivious to just about everything, Deborah Harmon knocks it out of the park, providing plenty of comic relief along the way. Meanwhile, Olivia Saccomanno is an ideal Norma: she’s classy, immaculate, smart, and knows how to play the game. She’s also emotional and driven by an intense moral code, which might just prove be her downfall.
Also exceptional are the three male actors. Adam Jonas Sellager and Hanz Enyeart are highly believable as staunchy Bob and goofy Jim, the two lovers with the most at stake, while Hal O’Connell adroitly pulls off Ted Sunderson, Bob’s somewhat dim-witted boss who has no idea his chief investigator is also among the investigated.
In private, Jim (Hanz Enyeart) and Bob (Adam Jonas Segaller) only have eyes for each other.
While American society has come a long way since the 1950s — at least in regards to gay acceptance — it’s fascinating to take a look back at this bygone era and be reminded of the perils homosexuals faced upon being found out. And this artful production by Dezart Performs and Shaw is an immense achievement in all areas. Highly recommended.
Perfect Arrangement runs through Jan. 20 at the Pearl McManus Theater, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, Palm Srings. For tickets, visit dezartperforms.org or call 760-322-0179.