Millie and Bob Martindale are having a cocktail party in their stylishly appointed Georgetown duplex. It’s 1950. The women are in form-fitting ensembles that show off their hourglass silhouettes, the men are in suits, and the repartee plays like a frothy mashup of Noel Coward and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”
Glibness so thick you can almost spread it on a cracker like a canape. Dialogue so sharp and snappy it lands like the clink of ice in a highball glass. But under the glossy veneer of society chitchat, all is not as it seems.
Washington is at the height of the McCarthy era, and Bob is a State Department official tasked with sniffing out deviants. He’s also a homosexual.
Such is the setup of Atlanta playwright Topher Payne’s “Perfect Arrangement,” a play that is required to do a bit of doubling in its own right. At its essence, “Perfect Arrangement” is a trenchant political commentary masking as zingy drawing-room comedy.
Superbly directed by Adam Koplan and wonderfully acted by a top-drawer ensemble at Theatrical Outfit, this is Payne’s finest achievement to date. A sizzling and suspenseful entertainment, done up in costumes worthy of Edith Head and interiors to rival those of Sister Parish, “Perfect Arrangement” makes a withering pronouncement on the wages of hypocrisy, internalized homophobia, deceit and trickery.
It stars Joe Knezevich as Martindale; Ann Marie Gideon as his wife, Millie; Clifton Guterman as his boyfriend, Jimmy Baxter; and Courtney Patterson as Norma, Jimmy’s beard and Bob’s office colleague. Kevin Stillwell plays Bob’s straight-arrow boss, Theodore Sunderson. Ann Wilson is Sunderson’s wife, Kitty, who insinuates herself into Millie and Norma’s world. And Stacy Melich is the mysterious, sexually omnivorous State Department translator Barbara Grant, who dresses in European haute couture, looks a little like Joan Crawford and threatens to upset the closeted couples’ carefully constructed fictions.
As the State Department’s lavender scare closes in on the very person charged with executing it, gaiety turns to bitterness, tension mounts, and the lies get bigger and bigger.
It’s a delight to see Knezevich and Gideon, who are married in real life, back in the sort of caper-comedy mode they inhabited so well some seasons ago at Georgia Shakespeare. Both Gideon and Patterson are as pert as Mary Tyler Moore’s Laura Petrie, and Wilson’s Kitty, a daft and needy snoop, is reminiscent of Gladys Kravitz on “Bewitched.” You expect to see Kitty peeking through the window of the apartment, horrified by the shocking (for its time) behavior within.
Instead of suffering an outright public humiliation, this menage a quartet falls prey to a kind of gnawing, nauseous dread. Norma, who is finely portrayed by Patterson, starts to resent having to pretend to be the fey Jimmy’s adoring wife when she really wants to curl up with her girlfriend. Millie backs herself into a corner, again and again, with her lying impulse. Grant, for her part, proves to be a powerful and manipulative force: dark intruder, liberator, conqueror.
Where, and how, will it all end? Perhaps not as you think. But after all the giddiness, there will be tears, declarations of love, and long, torturous goodbyes. Along the way, the actors get to traipse around Nadia Morgan’s handsome set in Linda Patterson’s fabulous costumes.
The genius of “Perfect Arrangement” is that it manages to balance campy comedy with high-stakes drama. When people get desperate, they get vicious. If Payne has a flaw, it may be that he feels too much tenderness for his characters. Bob Martindale behaves like a cretin and loses nearly everything he thinks he holds dear. Yet we can’t help but pity him, alone in his self-loathing and his house of lies, a ruined man.
Through March 18. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $18-$51. Theatrical Outfit, 84 Luckie St. NW, Atlanta. 678-528-1500, theatricaloutfit.org.
Bottom line: A deftly written study of homophobia and hypocrisy.
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