Fells Point Corner Theatre (FPTC) has made a name for itself by presenting works that push the needle ever further, frequently straddling that line between excellent theatre and thought-provoking studies in human behavior, usually with a pertinent message. That sterling reputation is shining even more brightly with the production that is playing now. “Perfect Arrangement” is almost perfect, and the slight imperfections are too slight to mention. So let’s not. Let’s talk instead about the many, many things that are so right with this piece. As soon as we get the expository stuff out of the way…
Playwright Topher Payne wrote his first draft of “Perfect Arrangement” in 2008, and in the following 11 years it has gone on to have a myriad of outings and picked up a handful of deserved awards along the way. Set in 1950 or so, it is the story of two picture-perfect couples, Millie and Bob Martindale, and Jim and Norma Baxter. While outwardly they are typical, 50s sitcom characters, they are actually two same sex couples who have married opposite gender spouses in order to maintain the façade in public, while privately the four actually live their own truths.
Director Patrick Gorirossi has brilliantly brought the piece to life, expertly assembling a team of professionals both on stage and off.
Those truths get a little, then a lot, muddied, when Bob Martindale and Norma Baxter, both of whom work for the state department, are ordered to turn their professional attentions away from the hunt for communists in their midst and concentrate on those employees exhibiting ‘moral turpitude,’ like the drunks, gamblers, and other mental deficients. Like the fags. The plot gets even more complicated with the revelation that a woman from Millie Martindale’s past, now employed by the same department as Millie’s ‘wife,’ is threatening to expose their previous lesbian relationship. As they use to say back then, ‘hijinks ensue.’
Director Patrick Gorirossi has brilliantly brought the piece to life, expertly assembling a team of professionals both on stage and off. From the still life portraits that open the show to the breakneck, slapstick timing in the schtickier moments, to the touching pacing of the tender moments of dramatic revelation, Gorirossi guides the action with the sure hand and laser focus of a truly gifted director. And opening the show with one of my signature song favorites, Babs and Judy singing their iconic duet of ‘Come On Get Happy/Happy Days’ was the perfect theatrical amuse bouche. My one small complaint is that the cast was not allowed to take bows, which they so richly deserved.
Set designer Bruce Kapplin raises the bar on stage furnishings to a level I have not seen lately around this locale. The 50s modern furniture may have been just a tad ahead of its time for 1951 in some of the color choices, but it all worked so beautifully, with details like the light fixtures and the Jackson Pollock on the fabric covered walls, the set actually deserves a bow of its own. Michael Logue’s lighting design shines and shimmers over the set pieces, accenting and highlighting perfectly. And Heather Johnston’s costume designs were an absolutely delicious, expertly capturing the flavor and form of the day.
It took me a few beats to glom onto the fact that the stilted, forced speech patterns that sounded like canned recitations from a 50s sitcom, more reminiscent of Ozzie and Harriet than a serious work of theatre, were the artifice of the playwright and director to set the tone of the play. The four main characters were obviously playing the parts expected of them by the societal norms of the day. The boss of two of the characters has come to dinner at the house of one of the couples and brought his snooty wife to boot. It was an artful device and served the piece well, particularly when the boss and wife depart, and the couples are able to let their guards down and be more themselves. All six actors are superb at staying in the characters defined by the time period and their personal motivations.
David Forrer has the thankless role of the State Department head, Theodore Sunderson, who orders the witch hunt. He brings just the right mix of bluster and pomposity cloaked in fake bonhomie. Having seen Mr. Forrer in a number of productions, there were no surprises in his excellent take on the character.
Ebony N. Jackson as Kitty Sunderson is an annoying sendup of every empty-headed society wife. She reminded me at times of Billie Burke in the Topper movies, without the distinctive vocal register. She is particularly effective spouting nonsense like, ‘fags are what they like to be called.’ An exceptionally talented actor, her background as a standup comedian serves her very well and she brings a welcomed spark to every scene she’s in.
Gabe Fremuth’s Bob Martindale is the most one-dimensional of the characters, which is odd considering he should be the most conflicted. Mr. Fremuth’s brings the proper degree of angst and is a skilled performer who does provide the off-kilter moral compass necessary to the plot.
One of my favorite things about this show was Nate Krimmel’s Jim Baxter. He completely captured the slightly fey, always funny, serio-comic lighter side of the male gay couple in the story. Krimmel is a lanky, early Dick Van Dyke (if Van Dyke were gay). And he is equally heart-breaking when faced with the impossible Sophie’s choice he has to deal with. A new actor on my radar and one I will certainly keep an eye on.
Holly Gibbs’ Norma Baxter is the moral opposite of Mr. Fremuth’s Bob Martindale, and she is outstanding at conveying the range of emotions from indignation to capitulation and back to stoic acceptance of her duty to the right thing. Gibbs is as good as anyone who graces our local stages and beyond, and every time she’s on stage she’s terrific.
Ari Juno as Millie Martindale is a slinky, sophisticated grown-up waif with a past and commands every scene. They have a dead-pan delivery that lands comedic punches with accuracy every time. Juno’s pitches for the ‘commercial cutaways’ are funny and entertaining. And their resolve in the final scenes reveals an actor of surprising depth and insight.
Shamire Casselle as Barbara Grant is an over-the-top delight. Her clipped speech and eye rolls are spot-on and hers more than anyone else’s wardrobe – from her gold-tipped kitten heels to her Balinciaga hat – is a visual treat. She is wonderfully convincing playing a femme fatale of ambiguous sexual tastes. I saw her in a performance of “Love, Loss and What I Wore” and enjoyed her then. This time out she’s even better.
It is important that audiences have the opportunity to be educated as well as entertained. Important topics like the struggle for equality on all fronts, the role of women as well as gays in society, the persecution of innocents and innocence itself, are all addressed in this deceptively instructive piece of theatre. It behooves us to be aware. But don’t neglect the pure entertainment value of good theatre. This play provides both. And we are all the better for it.
Running Time: 111 minutes with one intermission.
“Perfect Arrangement” runs August 30 to September 22 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 South Ann Street, Baltimore, MD. Tickets are available at (410) 276-7837 or online.