By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review
In the world of Topher Payne’s “Perfect Arrangement,” it’s 1950.
We’re at a cocktail party on one side of the Georgetown (Washington, D.C.) duplex supposedly inhabited by Bob and Millie Martindale (John DeCarlo and Laura Bohlin). Jim and Norma Baxter (Joshua Jones and Jennifer Paredes) supposedly live in the other unit.
Bob is on the Personnel Security Board at the U.S. State Department. Also present are Bob’s State Department boss, Theodore Sunderson (Tom Stephenson), and Kitty, Theodore’s ditsy wife (Cynthia Gerber).
Unknown to Theodore, he’s being conned by the perfect arrangement: Bob is married to Millie, who is a homemaker, but in actuality he is in love with Jim, with whom he shares the adjoining duplex unit. Jim is a high school teacher, married to Norma, who is a secretary at the State Department. She actually lives in a relationship with Millie.
Both Bob and Jim, who enter and exit through a closet in Millie and Norma’s living room, consider themselves and their “wives” safe from the State Department’s new crackdown, which Sunderson has just revealed: to find and oust deviants, those who the department, J. Edgar Hoover and President Truman consider to be at high risk for blackmail. Because of his excellent record identifying anti-American sympathizers, Sunderson assigns Bob the additional assignment.
The seventh character is Barbara Grant (Brooke McCormick), who works for the State Department as a translator. She’s a brilliant woman who lives her profligate personal life openly, apparently taking lovers of both sexes at will, when and wherever in the world she finds them.
As she says, good sex, a rare commodity, is worth preserving and protecting wherever you find it.
Barbara is high on Bob’s list of people to be ousted from the State Department, and she proves to be the person most to be feared, and rightly so, but for surprising reasons.
The premise of the play is timely and the prospect of its unfolding is fascinating, especially in today’s world in which many of the civil rights that were so slowly gained appear to be imperiled.
People who came into adulthood in the ’50s remember the times and the mores, prior to the sexual revolution and ensuing rights legislation.
Women raised, to be compliant (it was the norm), and others, who were more aware of the McCarthy era at the time, are shaken just to see the scenic design by Sean Yael-Cox and the period fashions by Jeanne Reith, who pulled some authentic zingers from her bag. Oh, yes, I was there, we say.
Except for some adept lines, the unfolding of Topher Payne’s script (directed by Christy Yael-Cox), which tales place over several weeks in 1950 and is rife with humorous situations, is not as satisfying or as convincing as it could be, partly due to the plot structure, partly due to the chemistry of the actors, who never convinced this observer of their sexual attraction for one another.
As played by Brooke McCormick and Cynthia Gerber respectively, the free-spirited Barbara and the cloying yet sincere Mrs. Sunderson stole the show.
Nonetheless, because of its timeliness and chilling capture of an era, “Perfect Arrangement” is worth seeing, if only as a caution that we could be forced to go there again.