Theatre Review: ‘Perfect Arrangement’ at Theatrical Outfit

Ann Marie Gideon, Joe Knezevich, Courtney Patterson and Clifton Guterman in “Perfect Arrangement” (Photos by Greg Mooney)

Theatrical Outfit is presenting “Perfect Arrangement,” Atlanta playwright Topher Payne’s political comedy/drama, in an excellent production directed by Adam Koplan, running through March 18.

The prolific, award-winning Mr. Payne has had his works performed all over the country. “Perfect Arrangement” won the 2014 American Theatre Critics Association Best Play Prize; in addition, this play marks his New York debut, playing an Off-Broadway engagement in 2015. He also scripts films for television, most notably several Hallmark Channel productions.

The current play takes place in 1950 in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. There are two married couples, Bob and Millie Martindale (Joe Knezevich and Ann Marie Gideon) and Jimmy and Norma Baxter (Clifton Guterman and Courtney Patterson). Incidentally, these are four of Atlanta’s best actors, all of whom acquit themselves admirably here.

The opening salvos of repartee make you think you’re watching a 1950’s situation comedy, but that impression is oh so faux. There’s a closet in the Martindale’s apartment which has a secret door to the Baxter’s residence. You see, the reality is that Bob and Jimmy are a gay couple; and so are Millie and Norma. Theirs are marriages of convenience. That closet has a lot of traffic.

Why the subterfuge? You’ve heard of the Red Scare and the McCarthy hearings of the 50’s; there was also something called the Lavender Scare, in which persons whom the government (specifically the Personnel Security Board, on which Bob works) deemed vulnerable to blackmail were rooted out, lost their jobs, and sometimes faced prison. Homosexuality (“deviants”) was a criminal act.

Kevin Stillwell and Ann Wilson

At first Bob, whose secretary is Norma, was charged with rooting out Commies; but then his boss, Theodore Sunderson, (Kevin Stillwell) says he must uncover other security risks: drunkards; loose women; and moral degenerates or “deviants.” This would be Bob himself, and his co-conspirators, for that is what they have become. The strain of constant deception and role-playing begins to wear on everyone.

Yet the first act of “Perfect Arrangement” is wonderfully comedic, and this is Mr. Payne’s wizardry for the evening: creating a first act of fun and stylish, witty people in Georgetown salons; and a second act of genuine tension and mounting dread. The two married couples stand to lose everything if they are exposed. Keep that in mind; they certainly do.

Ann Marie Gideon, Joe Knezevich, Courtney Patterson and Clifton Guterman.

Two characters who aid enormously in comic relief and colorfulness are Kitty Sunderson (Ann Wilson) and Barbara Grant (Stacy Melich). Kitty is the scatterbrained but strong-willed, nosy wife of Theodore; she’s always popping in uninvited at the Martidales and the Baxters, and she’s the kind of person who does not understand the word “no.” She’s hilariously obnoxious.

Then there is Barbara. She’s an expert translator at the State Department, is always dressed by Yves St. Laurent (she reminds me of Maria Callas in her prime), and even though her sexual exploits are legendary, she seems curiously invulnerable to all the government snooping. And she knows things; she’s a threat to the happy homemakers. Both Ms. Grant and Ms. Melich give expert performances.

I don’t have to tell you we’re living in an era of accusations, labeling, and name calling; this unhappy fact makes the play more than relevant. Playwright Payne is a born entertainer, but he also has a social conscience. If he chose, he could go a Neil Simon route; instead, he finds himself a sort of grandson to the great Henrik Ibsen, the 19th Century playwright often called the father of modern drama. I’m thinking of his provocative plays “An Enemy of the People” and “Ghosts.” I suppose he’s best known for “A Doll’s House.” He had a social conscience.

Stacy Melich and Courtney Patterson

“Perfect Arrangement” is both entertaining and oddly disturbing. It’s a beautiful production, with a set by Nadia Morgan and killer costumes by Linda Patterson.

Theatrical Outfit’s Artistic Director Tom Key says this play is a story “that transcends class, race, gender, sexuality, generations, politics or religion.” I understand that the Outfit has received some push back because of this show, so I commend Mr. Key for his humanity and moral commitment.

And I would see Topher Payne’s “Perfect Arrangement” because it’s a first class show extremely well-performed; Adam Koplan’s direction is seamless; and we must remember the past or be doomed to repeat it, as has been said.

For tickets and information, visit theatricaloutfit.org.

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