Plays that take place in the past often tend to include a narrative that is aimed at modern audiences. Topher Payne’s Perfect Arrangement from 2013 is no exception.
Set in 1950’s Washington D.C., the plot features two U.S. State Department employees, Bob Martindale (John DeCarlo) and Norma Baxter (Jennifer Paredes). At work, they fake being happily straight Americans. In reality, Bob and Norma are in same sex relationships.
Bob’s spouse, Millie Martindale (Laura Bohlin) is really Norma’s lover and Norma’s legal husband, Jim Baxter (Joshua Jones) is Bob’s partner. Conflicts occur when Bob and Norma are assigned to take part in the “Lavender Scare,” a historical witch-hunt against homosexuals.
The Intrepid Theatre Company presents Perfect Arrangement with the kind of superb professionalism typical of the organization. One of the more amusing aspects about the rendition from CEO/Producing Artistic Director and co-founder of Intrepid, Christy Yael-Cox, is the way she distinguishes between the Martindales’ and Baxters’ public and personal lives.
She stages their conversations with Bob and Norma’s boss, Theodore Sunderson (Tom Stephenson) and his talkative wife Kitty (Cynthia Gerber), in a witty style that’s calm and deceptively relaxing.
When the pairs are alone, Yael-Cox takes her time to focus on the main relationships in Perfect Arrangement. Because of Yael-Cox’s unhurried pacing, she creates a lot of emotional investment for the audience.
Visuals at the Horton Grand Theatre contribute to the façade that the Martindales have concocted in their home. Jeanne Reith’s 20th century inspired costumes and Sean Yael-Cox’s (Intrepid’s Artistic director and co-founder, director of operations) tasteful set can make any outsider believe that Bob and Millie aren’t too different from Ozzie and Harriet.
Hinting at the ways Perfect Arrangement ties into the present are fairly modern covers of older songs courtesy of T.J. Fucella’s audio. Without spoiling what the final song is, Fucella’s choice ties smartly into the climax of the evening.
With the exception of several line flubs on opening night, every performer makes their time onstage count. Paredes and Bohlin share a tender rapport as a couple deeply in love. They give the appearance that even during tense situations, Norma and Millie are dedicated to each other.
Jones and Brooke McCormick as a bisexual translator, Barbara Grant, play roles that initially seem like simple stereotypes. Jim comes across as simple comic relief while Barbara appears to be a primary antagonist. Yet, they both change significantly during the course of the play and show different sides to the D.C. residents.
DeCarlo’s Bob might not seem as significant to the plot in Act One, mainly because the other three leads are onstage for significantly more time. That’s intentional, as Bob becomes more important to the issues that grow in Act Two. He turns Bob into a sad man whose actions are both justified and complicated.
While billed as a comedy-drama, Payne’s story is really a drama disguised as a comedy. A sequence doesn’t go by without at least a little bit of clever dialogue. There are also instances of shenanigans that pay tribute to classic sitcoms like “I Love Lucy.”
Some of his jokes are a little on the nose, such as whenever a closet is used to symbolize that the couples are keeping their sexuality private. However, that forms only a small part in what is otherwise a very funny evening.
Before the opening sequence is over, it’s clear that the playwright isn’t softening up the tragic aspects of the Lavender Scare. What Bob and Norma are doing is beyond questionable, which Payne explores without demonizing either of them. He shows that their jobs give them ideal lives, but at the expense of others.
By giving a mostly forgotten period of history its due, Perfect Arrangement manages to be informative without sacrificing emotion. Not a whole lot of art based on the specific persecution of gays and lesbians exists in 2017. That’s one of the many reasons why theatregoers shouldn’t miss the insightful play.