An appropriate subtitle for “Perfect Arrangement,” a highly attractive period piece now at Silver Spring Stage, could be “The Way We Never Were.” A satire of 1950s conventionality, this charming gem boasts high comedy and intense drama, all with a complex consideration of LGBTQ+ liberation that directly connects it to the present day.
Spencer Knoll and Leigh K. Rawl’s polished mid-century set, a glamorous, middle-class living room, is gorgeous, but maybe just a tad too perfect—as one character points out, it actually feels more like a set than a home. At the start of the play, the “set” is being used for a quintessential 1950s performance; having the boss over for dinner. The Martindales, Bob (Nicholas Temple) and Millie (Maryanne Henderson) entertain Bob’s boss, Mr. Sunderson (Greg Garcia), a higher-up at the State Department, along with his flighty wife, Kitty (Joy Gerst). The Baxters, Norma (Emma Wesslund) and Jim (Brian E. Wright) round out the jolly evening. We learn through the opening conversation that Norma is Bob’s secretary at the State Department, and is the one who first introduced him to his wife, her good friend and former roommate, Millie.
A satire of 1950s conventionality, this charming gem boasts high comedy and intense drama.
Once the Sundersons are out the door, we learn that Norma and Millie are not just friends, but are in fact romantically partnered, as are Jim and Bob. (In a humorous touch, the couples’ adjoining apartments are connected via a closet.) As the glossy, heteronormative smoothness of the evening disappears amid affectionate riffing among the two couples, they begin to discuss Sunderson’s disturbing news; the State Department will be redirecting Bob’s job of profiling and finding potential communists, towards discovering suspected “deviants,” including gay and lesbian employees.
What follows is a thoroughly satisfying story examining how the well-drawn (and perfectly acted) foursome reacts to this threat to their domestic haven. Bob, impressively portrayed by Nicholas Temple with the square suavity of a high-ranking government employee, assures his family that they have an advantage by being on the inside. “We know how to get around the system because we created it,” he claims.
The script by Topher Payne, and direction by Leigh K. Rawls, has plenty of fun in the first Act exploiting the space between the characters’ picture perfect li(v)es and their real relationships. Maryanne Henderson as Millie is excellent as the somewhat reluctant homemaker, whose charming grin and jewel-toned dresses are belied by a sometimes steely gaze and a sense of discomfort with her role. The double-talk and subterfuge reach farcical proportions in a scene that finds Millie threatened with exposure by Barbara Grant, a State Department translator whose number of bed partners has gotten her flagged as a security risk under the new policy.
Barbara, in a clever and cutting performance by Pamela Wilterdink, stalks into the story unashamed of her past or her present. She upends the fragile safety the couples’ have found in their highly organized closet, challenging Bob’s certainty, and providing fuel for Norma and Millie’s discontent with the status quo.
Barbara’s character acts as a stand-in for the unknown number of government employees fired during this time period, referred to as the Lavender Scare. Historian David Johnson, author of “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government,” estimates the number to have been between 5-10,000.
Though the stated justification for the policy was gay and lesbian employees’ supposed vulnerability to blackmail by a foreign power (which has never been proven), Johnson emphasizes the conservative backlash that the persecution represented. “To many Americans in the postwar era, Washington, D.C. was a white-collar town full of long-haired men and short-haired women—social scientists and other experts—who were imposing their ideas on the country,” he says.
But instead of creating only progressive-minded characters, trapped by circumstance, Payne’s script plays with ideas of conservative and progressive values. In recognition of the characters’ relative privilege, Bob points to what he sees as the lack of progress in the contemporary black civil rights movement as reason enough to stay closeted. Norma demurs but also dreams of a domestic life that includes a child. In the end, the closet door gets opened from the inside, for some, towards a new movement brewing outside.
Running time: About two hours with one 15-minute intermission.
“Perfect Arrangement” runs through March 15, 2020, at Silver Spring Stage. For tickets, or more information, click here.