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Theater Review: “Perfect Arrangement”

L to R: Joshua Jones, John DeCarlo
Photo credit:
Daren Scott

The Big War is over, it’s 1950 and guess what? The problems that were solved have led to others, scarier and more difficult to solve.

Well, that’s what we thought then, anyway.

The defeat of fascism gave way to a horror of Communism; then the likes of J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI convinced President Truman that we also needed to root out “drunkards, loose women and deviants.”

It’s the last that playwright Topher Grace is concerned with in “Perfect Arrangement,” a strange bird of a play that wraps ’50s sitcom humor and clever repartee around a serious story about the Lavender Scare of the 1950s. It plays through March 3 at downtown’s Horton Grand Theatre. Christy Yael-Cox directs.

Picture the comfortable Georgetown home of Bob (John DeCarlo) and Millie (Laura Bohlin) Martindale. Bob runs the State Dept.’s Personnel Security Board. Next door are Jim (Joshua Jones) and Norma Baxter (Jennifer Paredes).

Jim is a teacher; Norma works for Bob at State. But here’s the rub: All are gay. Each plays hetero in public, going next door – in fact, through the closet door - to their real love when no one is looking.

When the play starts, Bob’s tiresome boss Theodore Sunderson (Tom Stephenson) and his ditzy wife Kitty (Cynthia Gerber) are arriving. Ted has come to tell Bob that he is to add those other three categories to commies and root them all out of the department. How can this work?

It’s a tricky play to pull off, and the first act is only partially successful, the ’50s sitcom aspect overplayed to a distracting (and to me, annoying) degree, with pasted-on smiles and phony-sounding dialogue. Sorry, but as my dad used to say, ’tain’t funny, McGee.

The second act is better, with the introduction of the plot’s catalyst, elegant Barbara Grant (Brooke McCormick), a bisexual translator bored in D.C. and itching to get reassigned overseas. It turns out she has some interesting history. 

The actors work very hard to deal with the sudden tonal shifts, but the playwright doesn’t give them much help and it doesn’t always work. Stephenson and Gerber are most successful, as the humorless casual bigot and his ditzy wife who don’t suffer those shifts.

McCormick is terrific, obviously misplaced as the steely translator who knows exactly what she wants and will do whatever necessary to get it.

The two couples aren’t especially convincing as either gays or straights, and though I can defend that reading on psychological grounds, it doesn’t work terribly well onstage. As Norma puts it, “We’re living the falsehood full-time and it is exhausting.”

Kudos to Jeanne Reith, whose terrific period costumes are always just right, and to the tech team (Karin Filijan’s lighting and T.J. Fucella’s sound design). Sean Yael-Cox’s set looks just right as well.

The “Lavender Scare” caused the dismissal of more than 400 State Dept. employees and thousands from government service overall. This play has things to tell us about ourselves and what we can be pushed to do.

The details

Intrepid Theatre’s production of “Perfect Arrangement” plays through March 12, 2017 at the Horton Grand Theatre, 444 Fourth Avenue, downtown.

Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm Saturday at 4 and 8 pm.; Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (888) 718-4253 or intrepidtheatre.org