Not everything’s perfect for the two seemingly happily married couples at the center of Topher Payne’s 1950s-set drama Perfect Arrangement (★★★). Occupying neighboring apartments in a Georgetown duplex, Bob and Millie Martindale and Jim and Norma Baxter lead overlapping lives that disguise a delicate cover for their real arrangement.
In fact, Millie and Norma are a lesbian couple, Bob and Jim are a gay couple, and the foursome have worked out a mutually beneficial ruse that can’t last. Revived by the Source Festival as part of its 10th anniversary season, this knotty crowd-pleaser about the Lavender Scare returns, driven by a new production team, fresh design, and an additional scene inserted since its debut in 2013.
As retrograde as the couples’ closeted camouflage might appear, Payne’s play remains a timely examination of the schism between public faces and private lives, especially for government employees. More than mere friends and neighbors, Bob (Jon Reynolds) and Norma (Mary Meyers) work together in the State Department, rooting out Communists from the agency’s rank and file.
Norma might be a dutiful implementer of State’s internal blacklist, but Bob actually devised the system of surveillance and questioning. Now, his and Norma’s rigid boss, Ted (Kevin McGuinness), has tasked the pair with turning their inquisitional tactics towards exposing absolutely anyone at the agency who might be susceptible to blackmail. The most susceptible are any so-called deviants, drunkards, and individuals of loose moral character, which, according to Ted, includes gays and lesbians. This sudden turn of suspicion leaves Bob and Norma orchestrating a witch hunt that could lead directly to their duplex.
Payne has concocted a drum-tight premise, and director Nick Martin and the Source team have built a smart, sturdy production of a period story that, save for the same-sex angle, easily might be played out in a live televised courtroom in 2017. The politics of blacklisting and the policymaking of flagrant hypocrites are subjects that can’t be relegated to any one decade. The look and feel of the show, however, is squarely and surely 1950.
Designer Jessica Cancino’s set reads as a bit boxy, but what it lacks in inviting warmth and dimension, it makes up for in eye-pleasing technicolor detail, echoed through Frank Labovitz’s uncommonly sumptuous costumes. In particular, the society finery of Ted’s affable — though not significantly less conservative — wife Kitty adds to the vividness of a character played to perfection by Jennifer Pagnard.
Perhaps lonely, definitely in need of friendship, and abundantly nosy, Kitty aggressively pursues Bob’s wife, Millie (Danielle Scott) to be bosom buddies, with Norma as a sort of third wheel. Pagnard supplies Kitty with a delightfully daffy affect and warble of a voice that serves as the woman’s public face in the world, despite her own private struggles. Kitty might or might not understand more than she lets on, but her increasingly intrusive presence in the couples’ lives is just another factor throwing off the balance of their cover act.
As tension mounts, and the characters’ frayed edges become ever more exposed, Meyers and Scott convincingly draw out the frustrations of two women in love whose conduct and career options have been so severely circumscribed by expectations of their gender. Meyers, as the heavily conflicted Norma, projects her character’s emotions mighty forcefully, but she and Scott complement one another well as a romantic pairing.
Novak brings sharp wit and timing to Jim, a high school teacher who, as much as any government employee, might be considered (then and always, really) susceptible to concerns about individual morality. He acts as sparkling complement to every other performer onstage, although Jim and Bob aren’t the most credible lovebirds. The real wildcard, both in the plot and the production, is the character of Barbara Grant, played with gusto by Toni Rae Salmi. Salmi isn’t subtle, but she’s highly entertaining as a State employee whose checkered past lands her at the top of Bob and Norma’s naughty list.
Pitched slightly broader, the innuendoes and intrigues could play as screwball comedy, but that sort of effervescence is only lightly sampled on the menu. Instead, plot entanglements, some involving Barbara, pile up in the final act, with Bob, Millie, Jim and Norma crafting various schemes and counter-schemes to maintain their secret lives. But it’s Payne’s lever-pulling that feels exposed by the hasty wrap-up of some messy developments. Thankfully, he has populated the play with compelling, strongly delineated characters, enacting the perpetual truth that living a falsehood can be exhausting.
Perfect Arrangement runs through July 2 at The Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets are $20 to $32. Call 202-204-7760, or visit sourcefestival.org.
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