Set during the Red Scare of the 1950s, Topher Payne’s play, “Perfect Arrangement,” might sound like a sober history lesson from an era when being gay or lesbian could destroy the most successful career and shame entire families.
Bob and Norma are two U.S. State Department employees tasked with identifying “sexual deviants” within the highest ranks of the government. But, there is a twist: Both Bob and Norma are gay and they have married each other’s partner in an attempt to avoid their own detection.
“In the midst of all this heady discussion, I swear it’s a comedy,” promised Payne. “Imagine the conflict between what was on the front page of the newspaper in 1950 versus what Americans were watching on their television screens and the perfect lives these shows tried to present to viewers.”
Payne likens the result to a zany episode of “I Love Lucy,” as the couples emulate the idyllic lives of married couples as modeled by sitcoms and commercials.
“It’s all by design,” said Payne. “The absurdity and farce of the masks they are wearing is tragic, but so ridiculous, you can’t help but find it all funny. That’s a piece Andy and his team can handle with great facility.”
Payne referenced Island City Stage’s producing artistic director Andy Rogow, who will be opening the latest production of the Off Broadway hit in Wilton Manors this weekend and running through Dec. 11. The gay-centric theater company opened its 2015 season with a successful production of Payne’s “Angry Fags.”
Comedy or not, much research was involved to get the facts right. Payne learned much about the period from David K. Johnson’s seminal volume, “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.”
“When I initially became aware of this moment in history, it was one of those times when you get really ticked off that you didn’t already know about it,” Payne explained. “The Red Scare is studied in history class and part of the lexicon; but, this (Lavender Scare) was happening concurrently and the effect it had on galvanizing the American gay rights movement has been lost to history in many ways. When I find something like that frustrates me. It’s what sends me to the computer and to work.”
During 2012 workshops of the play in Washington, D.C., he dug into local archives and met many people who shared second hand accounts of the people who were forced to lead double lives during the period. The play then ironically received its premiere just blocks away from the Supreme Court just as the Defense of Marriage Act was struck down.
“It really captured the zeitgeist of the moment,” Payne recalled.
The play may be a historical piece, but there are still contemporary lessons to be learned.
“I find that when you write a period piece you’re not just telling a story of ‘them then,’ you’re telling a story of ‘us now.’ Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible,’ for example, about the witch hunts was written during the McCarthy era. It meant to teach a lesson about how those who don’t heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them,” he added.
Audiences may become frustrated with some of Payne’s characters who seemingly fail to stand up for their rights, but Payne, a native of conservative Mississippi, relates to their concerns decades later.
“We have a tendency to be baffled by those who choose to live closeted or very discreet lives, but the queer people I was able to know coming up, I’ve always had a place in my heart for the people who chose to live their lives that way out of a feeling of necessity,” he said.
It can be frustrating, he admitted, but again, he emphasized the importance of not repeating the mistakes of history and taking a moment to laugh at ourselves when we can.
Island City Stage presents Topher Payne’s “Perfect Arrangement,” Nov. 10 – Dec. 11 at Abyss Theatre, 2304 N. Dixie Highway in Wilton Manors. Tickets are $35 at IslandCityStage.org.