Recipe for a Perfect Evening: Take heaping cups of American mid-century corn (straight from the pages of Good Housekeeping), place it in a beautifully crafted Dutch Oven (from the pages of the Montgomery Ward catalog), add extra-virgin ironic humor (from the emerging post-war educated classes), and place over the hot flames of McCarthyism. When the flame hits, the popping and crackling fills the stage, thrills the audience, and spills into the streets as the crowd leaves abuzz with ideas and memories. Perfect Arrangement is a perfect night out.
Director Leigh K. Rawls delivers a magnificently-paced production of Topher Payne’s timely study of social foment and change. It’s 1950 and Bob and Norma, two State Department employees, are tasked with outing “sexual deviants” in the department. What does one do when one is the target of a possibly well-intended, certainly well-financed government institution’s redefining and narrowing of the nation’s values, even though it is against the Constitution and the law? This is a recurrent theme in theater and frankly, it is hard to approach this topic afresh. This production delivers.
The Martindales are a lovely couple, perfect in dress and manner, up to date on the latest magazines and trendy professions. Bob Martindale (Nicholas Temple) is a heavy-starch kind of fellow employed as head of personnel at the State Department. He shines in his work, hunting down communists that lurk within State, up to date and up to speed with Senator Joe McCarthy and the carrion-eating press of the day. His wife Millie Martindale (Maryanne Henderson) delivers the news on the latest banister polish with the bright earnestness of a cub scout reciting the Pledge.
In the opening scene, they entertain Theodore (Greg Garcia) and Kitty (Joy Gerst) Sunderson, Bob’s boss and his wife. Also present are the lovely couple from next door, Jim (Brian E. Wright) and Norma (Emma Wesslund) Baxter. Over Jim’s special cocktails, Mr. Sunderson showers Bob and Norma (who happens to be his secretary at State) with praise. He then promotes them: along with commies and pinkos, they will hunt down and fire all drunks and “deviants” from State. Asked to define deviance, Mr. Sunderson describes, in various 1950s idioms, a gay lifestyle. The match to this particular pyre is lit by a deliciously accoutered Barbara Grant (Pamela Wilterdink), a State Department interpreter who enjoys entertaining in many tongues.
Panic ensures because Bob, Jim, Norma, and Millie are in fact potential targets of such a hunt. Issues of money, career, support and love are explored as the couples unravel their fates.
The pièce de résistance and joy of this production is the cast. They pop. They crackle. And they snap. Lines, entrances, emotions, movement all move seamlessly, ebb and crescendo, and keep our minds and our hearts with them as they speed along. As Millie, Henderson delivers a character of extraordinary range and depth, a midwestern girl who grows into a cosmopolitan woman delightfully striving to learn, live and love more, and who is still just a person who cares for others. As her love, Wesslund is delightful as a true Washington professional: more educated, career-oriented, logical, and broken.
As Jim, Wright is the perfect guy next door, who happens to be gay. He is in love, he is working, he has a life, and he stands by it all. Temple’s Bob is the definitional straight-laced, straight-faced, hardworking man whose service to his nation defines him. In a scene set on a weekend day, Temple appears in jeans and a work shirt, pressed and with business shoes (brown, matching belt, of course). He is not so much a man at home as a Price Waterhouse accountant at a barn dance. Temple flashes, controls, thinks, and loves with equal restraint throughout.
Gerst as Kitty elicits exquisite laughter in several moments, the lovable ditz who just cannot get out of her own way, falls for everything with her open heart, and dishes platitudes the sophisticates are well-advised to heed. She steals your heart. Garcia’s Sunderson is commanding and caring as he polishes up, then dresses down, Martindale. Wilterdink as Barbara, the honest broker in the story, the visionary who paints a livable future, stops the show at her entrance (Vogue beware), in her frankness, and with her ever-civil manners. After threatening to destroy the families, she leaves the Martindale house wishing a good weekend with such sincerity one can only respond in kind. Ah, the 1950s.
A large part of the freshness comes from director Rawls and her design team. They have created a profoundly accurate and detailed set by designers Spencer Knoll and Rawls (who also designed properties) and painting by Atticus Boidy and Simone Skerritt. The precision and clean lines of the set, props, and furniture, all visible prior to the opening of the show, create the immediate sense of “being there” for anyone with parents or grandparents of that era and memories of that split-level living room, the Danish clock, and the leftover Victorian bookshelf repurposed as a bar that is the one jarring, rococo artifact in an otherwise clean-line Frank Lloyd Wright world.
Costumes are sumptuous, sound is a jazzy uplift, and lights are appropriate to a show done throughout on one set. The detail outside the open front door is marvelous.
Share the evening with the Martindales and the Baxters. Silver Spring Stage’s production of Perfect Arrangement is a treat for the eyes, heart, and mind.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.