Reliving the 'Lavender Scare' in 'Perfect Arrangement'

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday October 2, 2015

Most Americans have some familiarity with the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s (there were actually two Red Scares-the first came after the Bolshevik Revolution). What began as an investigation into Communist activities, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, turned into a veritable witch-hunt that begat a blacklist that destroyed careers and lives.

But what about the Lavender Scare? Anyone?

In 1950, the State Department decided to begin persecuting "sexual perverts" who were considered as dangerous as Communists. Conservative demagogue Senator Joe McCarthy joined forces with two closet cases, Roy Cohn (see "Angels in America") and J. Edgar Hoover to rid the government of homos (the irony just kills).

This went on well into the 1970s as hundreds of gays and lesbians were blackmailed, humiliated and fired via these subcommittees. (The term "Lavender Scare" comes from the oft-used "lavender lads," by Senator Everett Dirksen as a derogatory reference to homosexuals.)

Horrific blight

So why isn't this horrific blight on our country's history common knowledge? Playwright Topher Payne has set out to right that wrong and educate a new generation on exactly how and why the U.S. government was targeting LGBT Americans. "In learning about it, it pissed me off that I didn't already know about it," Payne explains.

"Perfect Arrangement," Payne's satiric new play set at the outset of the Lavender Scare, runs through November 6 at Primary Stages. The basic plot follows two State Department employees, Bob (Robert Eli) and Norma (Julia Coffey) given the job of "identifying sexual deviants within their ranks." Alas, Bob and Norma are queer themselves and have both married each other's significant others so as not to incur suspicion while chasing communists. Now, the witchhunt gets far more complicated.

Through comedy, Payne's goal is to shed light on this early and significant moment in the American gay rights plight (two decades before Stonewall).

"This chapter in American history in its treatment of the LGBT community became the pace-bar for what we'd be fighting for the next 60 years," Payne offers. "This was the first moment that the American government officially acknowledged that homosexuals even existed. Before that it was focused on the act itself. You could be discharged from the army for the 'act' but it wasn't associated with an identity. And in the grand sweep of the state department removing security risks, it was an idea not that this is a man engaged in this act with another man, it was that this is a man that has an immutable trait that makes him dangerous. And so it developed a strong sense of other that we've spent the last half-century trying to come back from."

Why comedy?

This dark time for gays and lesbians in our history seems to scream out drama and yet Payne has fashioned his story into a madcap 50s sitcom style-comedy, at the beginning anyway. "I don't write dramas," Payne explains. "I write funny people in very serious situations." And while this might be true, Payne's piece takes on a seriousness as it compellingly moves along and the rich characters become more nuanced.

So who is Topher Payne? If you don't know, you're not alone.

Cast member Kelly McAndrew ("Abundance"), who plays sexy vamp Barbara Grant, a character being investigated for "lascivious behavior" shares, "Topher was a brand new name to me. I read the script and immediately fell in love with it and thought: Why don't I know this man's plays?"

Payne is a celebrated, award-winning regional playwright from Atlanta, Georgia, who is finally seeing his work bow off-Broadway thanks to Primary Stages. Payne has written a slew of plays including, "Angry Fags," "Swell Party," "Evelyn in Purgatory" and "The Only Light in Reno."

"Any director who picks up this script and starts reading it would want to direct this play," raves director Michael Barakiva ("White People"). "It's a comedy, my favorite genre. I worked for Wendy Wasserstein for five years when I was right out of school, so I feel like I learned at the hands of a master about how comedies work. And this is a comedy with teeth. It's satiric. It's a comment on society. It makes you think, makes you feel."

Funny & thought-provoking

Actor Kevin O'Rourke ("The City of Conversation"), who portrays Theodore Sunderson, a high level State Department figurehead, says, "Topher has a real gift of maintaining the humor and illusion of watching a performance but, at the same time, the issues (being discussed) are very important and very thought provoking. And that's very rare to have a playwright who can do that."

The terrific cast received a quick education on the era the play is set in as well as the insidious nature of what the government was doing.

"Topher is a font of knowledge. I knew almost nothing," admits Mikaela Feely-Lehmann (Broadway's "Cyrano de Bergerac") who superbly plays Millie Martindale, an idealized '50s housewife with "a perfect house, perfect dress, perfect hair and is a perfect hostess."

"I was barely familiar," concurs Christopher J. Hanke ("Buyer and Cellar"), who portrays closeted gay schoolteacher Jim Baxter. "I didn't know the details... Our government is probably embarrassed by their actions. There's something that isn't embarrassing about rooting out Communists. It's bipartisan. Everyone can rally around that. But everyone can't rally around getting rid of homosexuals -- it's like a stain."

Stain on American society

"I think it's a stain on American society, too," adds Robert Eli ("Tartuffe" on Broadway), who embodies the enigmatic Bob Martindale, a WWII vet placed in charge of the hunt. "This is happening right after World War II and we're not as bad as Nazi's killing all the Jews, but we're persecuting our own people. And this went on until 1975."

"Also on that list were women who slept around," McAndrew shares. "And a lot of the people who were creating these lists couldn't wrap their head around lesbians. They didn't really believe that women had sex with each other."

"I had to be reminded what was taboo back then," states Julia Coffey ("London Wall") who plays closeted lesbian Norma Baxter, a woman at a crossroads. "Homosexuality back then was almost akin to pedophilia today. It had the same stigma."

Besides the intense history lesson, the director and cast have been experiencing the evolution of the play since Payne continues to rewrite during the rehearsal process. "The play is a living breathing thing. In the rehearsal room, Michael has been so amazing with the table work. We spent time picking it apart line by line."

"After the first week, one scene wasn't working," O'Rourke accounts, "And the next day Topher came in with seventeen new pages!"

"What's nice about working on a new piece is that you can see the playwright shaping their sculpture," Hanke offers.

Fantasy vs. Reality

The author imparts, "If you can say it with a line, good. If you can say it with a look, better."

"Topher's done a whole round of rewrites, after hearing these actors," Barakiva says. The director's own process began with immersing himself in research including reading David K. Johnson's book, "The Lavender Scare" (which is being made into a feature documentary). "I looked at advertisements from the period. It's pure fantasy. So I start with that visual world."

Jennifer Van Dyck ("The Divine Sister"), who plays the "blissfully heterosexual," Kitty Sunderson, comments on the irony of that American dream being peddled, "Those Life magazine pictures we see, and all the ads, how it was being sold in 1950 as the perfect life -- the white picket fence, the cocktails, the woman wearing the apron. Topher is playing with all these prescribed roles -- the illusion is that everything is perfect. Everyone knows who they are, what they stand for and what their beliefs are but during the course of the play all of that gets turned on its head."

Watching these wonderful actors at work, one can feel the passion they all have for the material and experience how generous they are with one another, in terms being giving and reacting to each other. In addition, the power of the piece obviously still moves them as certain actors were brought to tears watching their fellow thesps and the strange sequence of events that ruined lives and created heroes.

Obvious parallels

Playwright Payne sees the obvious parallels with the themes explored in his play and our world today: "Why is Trump happening? There is a segment of the American population who are terrified. Who see the world changing and don't understand what their place in that world will be. And so their instinct is to fight as anyone would if they felt their sense of self was being threatened. That's what's happening with these Trump followers. That's what's happening with those rallying and yelling Kim Davis for President. They're afraid and they feel their fears are not being addressed. Most of that is on them.

"But part of that is on us because it's so much easier to dismiss them, to ignore them, to fight them, instead of finding a way to engage them. It's humbling to realize how little is gained by matching shouting with shouting. As a playwright my job is not to shout. It's to start a dialogue, a conversation. To make them laugh so they hopefully lean in and listen." He pauses, then adds, "And then sneak in with my gay agenda!" (Hysterical laughter).

Payne's admirable philosophy is one of empathy and responsibility:
"There's an experience that happens in the theatre that really only happens in houses of worship, where people come in, they sit down and they shut up. There's an extraordinary responsibility attached to that as the people speaking to that audience because just like in a house of worship you have the opportunity to change their minds just a little, to change their hearts just a little. And send them back out into the world better than you brought them in. That's my job as a playwright. That's why I write plays instead of movies. Because I believe that when you're breathing the same air as the storyteller, something very intimate happens. If one performance of one of my shows inspires someone to make a more compassionate choice, to make a more empathetic choice -- if that happens once in my entire career -- then that's time well spent."

Perfect Arrangement runs through November 6 at Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street -- a New 42nd Street project. Opening Night is set for October 15. Tickets can be purchased online at PrimaryStages.org or at Dukeon42.org, by phone at 646-223-3010, or at the box office.

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute