Source Festival: ‘Perfect Arrangement’ by Eric Denver


History 101 is a great place to begin to understand the ramifications of a Perfect Arrangement, which opens in the Spring of 1950. We find ourselves at the play’s outset smack in the middle of the Joseph McCarthy era, whose self-imposed Senatorial mandate was to weed out Communists in both the Government and entertainment Industry. On February 5, 1950, McCarthy gave a speech in West Virginia claiming he had a list of 250 card-carrying communists who were employed by the State Department. Later that month during Senate hearings, a State Department official implied that 91 sexual deviants were among those dismissed by State as security risks, which eventually led to the ouster of thousands of Federal employees marking the beginning of the “Lavender Scare.” The domestic communist witch hunt soon combined with the “Lavender Scare,” and the two became inextricably linked.

The cast of 'Perfect Arrangement.' Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
The cast of ‘Perfect Arrangement.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Our main character Bob Martindale (Andrew Keller) is in a State Department position of responsibility – charged with ferreting out such Communists. Early in Act I, his boss Theodore Sunderson (Zach Brewster- Geisz) adds another responsibility to his position – to identify and eradicate any sexual deviants from the Department. That may be major challenges for Keller in carrying out his new responsibility because Keller happens to be gay and in a relationship with Jim Baxter (Kiernan McGowan), and the “husband” of Keller’s secretary, Norma Baxter (Natalie Cutcher). She also happens to be gay and in a relationship with Martindale’s “wife” Millie (Raven Bonniwell). So you have two “married” couples living next to each other in DC’s Georgetown neighborhood, who are both in ‘unfortunate’ relationships portraying two happily married couples during the day, but sharing their beds with their respective same-sex partners after the lights go out.

With a packed house waiting for Perfect Arrangement to begin, I was impressed by Deb Sivigny’s set  that looked like a 50’s TV sitcom set complete with a white sofa, an amoeba-shaped cocktail table in front with spindly legs, and an oval-shaped Asian multi-colored rug that brightens up the set, lamps, a huge high-back white chair, and a glass rollaway cart. The cart is piled high with bottles of liquor as it sits at the rear of the stage conveniently accessible for ample use throughout the show. A large chartreuse curtain is hung between two doors at the back of the stage. Ozzie and Harriet would have been thrilled.

Throughout the evening, the production had numerous loose strings and I began to wonder how these complicated plot entanglements would be resolved. Ten minutes before the ending, one member of the cast I was led to believe had a minor role – Barbara Grant (Jill Nienhiser) – arrived onstage, and delivered a tirade of a ‘Get the hell out of the closet and use your position to take action that might remedy the “Lavender Scare. As you can only imagine, the audience’s response was electric. And as this powerful production – filled with biting humor – came to an end, I began to appreciate Playwright Topher Payne’s principle reason for writing it…to both educate and illuminate.

Jill Nienhiser. Photo by C. Stanley Photography
Jill Nienhiser. Photo by C. Stanley Photography

Director Linda Lombardi receives emotional and exceptional performances from her convincing and talented cast, who help to make the historical context that much more frightening. A special kudo to Karen Lange (Kitty Sunderson) who contributed much-needed humor in her scenes.

I strongly recommend that you carve out time in your busy schedule to see Perfect Arrangement. The issues the play raises are extremely timely as we wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to hand down two serious decisions with regard to gay rights in our country. Hopefully, the decisions will clear the way to ensure that no gay couple in the United States will ever again be forced to live in a ‘Perfect Arrangement.’

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Perfect Arrangement plays June 16, June 22, and June 25th at 8 PM, and June 29th at 1 PM at Source Theatre – 1835 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.