Perfect Arrangement
Through Nov. 12
Raleigh Little Theatre, Raleigh

As Perfect Arrangement begins, designer Jeannine Borzello’s smart, sophisticated 1950s living-room set doesn’t look like a bunker. But, under Patrick Torres’s nuanced direction, the walls start closing in on gay couple Bob and Jim and lesbian couple Millie and Norma well before the end of Topher Payne’s enigmatic script.

It’s the spring of 1950. In adjoining townhouses where two supposedly heterosexual married couples can actually live with their partners in secret, Bob has created a shelter to protect his ambitions for advancement at the State Department. But as the government, goaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy, starts to hunt down “sexual deviants” in its ranks—and Bob and Norma, his secretary, are placed in charge of that effort—a deficit of trust transforms a two-house safe room into a psychological vacuum chamber.

In Raleigh Little Theatre’s suspenseful production, a sound cue seems missing in the drama’s final minutes. When the townhouse door opens in the last scene, it feels like an airlock releasing.

Payne injects no small amount of comedy in the opening sections, as Millie (Lauren Knott, in a career-best performance) easily distracts ditzy Kitty (Melanie Simmons), her boss’s wife, from asking prying questions about her domestic arrangements by lacing their conversation with what sounds like cheesy​ (but​ ​​​pitch​-perfect) fifties ​​ad copy for hand cream, potted meat, and furniture polish.

Meanwhile, away from prying eyes, Millie and Norma (Amelia Sciandra) debate the double standard of persecuting other gays and lesbians while concealing their own identities. As an increasingly arrogant Bob (a sharp Paul S. James) defends the investigative program that threatens them all, he finally voices his latent self-loathing by contrasting discrimination against gays with discrimination against African Americans: “There’s nothing immoral about being a negro.”

As Payne ups the stakes, the metaphorical closet we see on stage becomes so pressurized that something has to give. This script and this production unmask the conditions that inevitably birthed the gay liberation movement in the United States.