Backstage: Topher Payne has a ‘Perfect Arrangement’ for a hot issue

July 2, 2013

Topher Paynewrote the first draft of “Perfect Arrangement” in 2008. The play, a comedy set in the 1950s about two gay couples who marry each other’s partners so as to hide in plain sight as straight husbands and wives, had a workshop production in Payne’s home town of Atlanta, and then Payne set it aside.

He and his partner went to Massachusetts to get married. Then they returned home to Georgia. “So our marriage license is more decorative than anything else here,” said Payne.

And then Payne lost his driver’s license.

The worst thing about losing your driver’s license, really, is that you have to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV is where happiness goes to be obliterated; it’s like the Dementor of places. This was especially true for Payne, who tried to use his marriage license as one of the two required forms of identification.

“I thought, okay, it’s not legally identified as a marriage, but it’s still a government document,” he said. The DMV’s reply: Thanks, but no thanks! We don’t take gay marriage licenses here. “Even at the DMV, I’m not married.”

“It was just feeling like you’re banging your head against the wall, and something that seems so sensible to you [is] simply not part of the vocabulary for another group of people that, unfortunately, gets to make the rules. And that’s what lit the fire under the script that it really needed: giving it a personal investment.”

Payne said he considered himself “really well versed” in gay history but quickly discovered, as he did his dramaturgical digging, that “everything I knew about the gay American experience was post-Stonewall,” starting in 1969. “There were so many stories lost of the early-20th-century gay American experience because the people experiencing it didn’t live to a time when they could actually tell their stories freely,” said Payne, who described his process as more of an “investigation” than traditional research, given the amount of sleuthing it required.

“I came out, hopefully, a little bit smarter and with a much greater appreciation for how dedicated you had to be to the person you knew you were supposed to be, during a period of time when being gay was still classified as a mental illness,” he said.

“Perfect Arrangement” takes place in Georgetown during the 1950s and is full of that “I Love Lucy” slang; one character insults another with the slur of “grand high poobah.” But “what’s been so fortuitous in the timing of the production of ‘Perfect Arrangement,’ happening in D.C., telling a story about D.C., is how shockingly aligned it is with the experiences we’re having 60 years later,” said Payne.

The timing was a coincidence, said Jenny McConnell Frederick, producer of CulturalDC’s Source Festival. “Perfect Arrangement” was selected last December, before the date of the Supreme Court ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act had been set. Tickets had been selling well before the ruling — “We were at 96 percent capacity of our 104-seat house,” said Frederick — and after the same-sex marriage ruling, three more performances were added to meet ticket demand.

Payne’s characters struggle with how much they want to go to the mat for the change they believe they deserve, oscillating between “if not now, when?” and “don’t rock the boat” mentalities. “That’s the central conflict of the show,” Payne said. “It ends up being [about] how much you should disrupt your own existence for the sake of demanding something more. And that’s an argument we’re still having.”

Through Sunday at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW, 202-315-1305, sourcefestival.org.

Signature takes a ‘Spin’

In “Spin,” a new musical based on the Korean film “Speedy Scandal,” James Gardiner plays Evan, who once helmed the boy band ‘N Famous.

‘N Famous! Best boy-band name or best boy-band name? “We totally came up with that one ourselves,” said Brian Hill, who wrote the book of the musical (the other half of that “we” is Neil Bartram, writer of the music and lyrics.)

Evan leaves the band to pursue his own solo career. This . . . did not go so well. “He had one hit song,” said Hill. Also not working in Evan’s favor: “He’s cocky and self-centered, and he tries to maintain some semblance of his fame by sleeping with his fans, and that’s his entire world.”

That is, until the daughter and grandson he never knew he had show up on his doorstep.

“On one hand, it’s hilariously funny,” said Hill. “And on the other hand, it’s got this beautifully touching story about a man trying to figure out what’s important in his life. It’s about a faded pop star — like Justin Timberlake, if he never made it big — and he’s trying to get his fame back, but he finds out that he suddenly has family that he never knew about.”

A few big changes were made to the source material to keep things from getting lost in translation. The pop has-been in the movie is making ends meet as the star of a call-in radio show. (Younger readers, consult your nearest baby boomer to learn what a “radio” is.) In “Spin,” Evan appears on “a kind of low-rent ‘American Idol’ local television program,” Hill said.

Hill writes the book by himself and brings it to Bartram, who “never lets me in on his process,” said Hill. “He only lets me hear things when he’s ready to present. And then he’ll present a song that I never expected, and he gets a completely fresh ear for his work.”

Bartram and Hill met as actors in the original Canadian cast of “Forever Plaid” and have since abandoned the acting scene to write full-time. “I like being in a room alone and creating a world,” said Hill.

“Spin” is part of Signature Theatre’s SigLab, “a stage in the process between doing a staged reading and a full production,” said Hill. “There’s a production that’s full, but it’s not so completely produced that you can’t tinker with it. We can tap into the audience reaction and make changes.”

A couple of numbers have been added since rehearsals began, Hill said, including a new finale. “Other than that, it’s really been about honing and fine-tuning.”

At this point, said Hill, he’s lost track of where “Speedy Scandal” ends and “Spin” begins. “I can’t tell the difference anymore. It all feels like it’s our work now. It feels like it’s a piece of our own.”

“Spin,” Tuesday through July 27, Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. 703-820-9771, signature-theatre.org.

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