Long a mainstay of the Baltimore community theater landscape, Fells Point Corner Theatre has been on quite a roll recently – delivering knockout productions like Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem last winter. Now the Fells folks are kicking off another ambitious season with Perfect Arrangement by Topher Payne, directed by Patrick Gorirossi.
Set in a Georgetown duplex in 1950, the play begins as a wonderful romp – a staccato collage of all the gags, intensely earnest superficiality, and even the facial expressions of our favorite reruns of I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show. Millie and Bob Martindale (Ari Eckley and Gabe Fremuth) are hosting a cocktail party at the request of Bob’s boss, Theodore Sunderson (David Forrer). Best-friends-wacky-neighbors Norma and Jim Baxter (Holly Gibbs and Nate Krimmel) are in attendance, as is Sunderson’s wife Kitty (Ebony N. Jackson). While Millie and Norma mug to present the audience with hilarious commercials for furniture polish and shortening, Sunderson explains to Bob that their shared mission at the Department of State is about to change.
Already very successful at rooting out and purging suspected Communist sympathizers from the employment rolls, Bob – and his secretary, Norma – are now to shift their focus towards exposing and removing certain other kinds of perceived security risks, namely persons whose sexual behavior makes them potential targets for blackmail. Trouble is, the titular perfect arrangement consists of a covert operation among the Martindales and Baxters themselves, where a pair of marriages of convenience disguise the real nature of two couples who are deeply in love and threatened by the America of their time.
From there, the play is a terrific journey of twists and turns. Purge victim Barbara Grant (Shamire Casselle) enters the action, armed with righteous anger and secrets that could ruin lives. At times the story takes the shape of a suspense thriller; at others, it’s a heart-wrenching tale of sacrifice. But even after the author’s gloves come off, the production maintains a rock-solid comedic base – credit to Director Gorirossi for that particular high-wire act. Credit, too, to an amazing cast: Holly Gibbs is a superstar – her usual perfection with physical comedy is on full display here, but in this production, she also delivers when the stakes are highest. As Norma is forced to make a painful personal choice in the second act, Gibbs shows the best acting chops of the evening, much of it with her back to the audience.
As the Martindales, Eckley and Fremuth navigate well from the frothy beginning to the gravity that takes hold later. Eckley is thoroughly convincing as they give Millie courage; Fremuth the antihero as Bob’s true nature is revealed. As fits the Barbara Grant character, Casselle owns the stage from entrance to exit whenever she appears. The play’s language is idiomatic, driven by the characters as much as by the period, and Casselle sells Barbara’s words effortlessly. Kitty Sunderson may very well be the most annoying character to hit a Baltimore stage in years, and Jackson is pure delight in the role. Krimmel and Forrer do very strong work as well.
All of the visual elements of the production are spot-on. Bruce Kapplin’s scenery and Heather Johnston’s costumes depict the period beautifully. Lighting Designer Michael Logue and the uncredited sound designer contribute to the world of the play very nicely. Worthy of special mention is Emily Sucher, whose intimacy direction is a vital component here.
Payne is a highly prolific Southern playwright who wrote Perfect Arrangement a decade ago, put it on a shelf, and soon afterward found himself thrust personally into the play’s themes when the Georgia Department of Motor Vehicles refused to recognize the marriage license he and his husband had just obtained in Massachusetts. Payne revisited the script, and found it selected for the 2013 Source Festival in Washington, coincidentally appearing on stage at the same time as the US Supreme Court’s overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Running Time: 111 minutes, including an intermission.