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Perfect Arrangement
by Topher Payne
Directed by Sarah Lynne Holt
R-S Theatrics
December 6, 2018

Zak Farmer, Mark Kelley, Colleen Backer, Deborah Dennert
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

I always try to be careful with how much I reveal about the plots of the plays I review. A little bit of spoiling is sometimes inevitable, but for the most part, I try to write so that the important surprises will be kept for the viewers to see for themselves. In a play like R-S Theatrics’ latest production, Perfect Arrangement, managing spoilers is a little more difficult since the play starts out with a surprise. It’s also a play that keeps surprising as the story goes along, by way of playwright Topher Payne’s cleverly constructed script. One thing that isn’t much of a surprise, though, is the strength of the cast, since R-S Theatrics is fairly consistent in finding just the right performers for their roles.

This is a play about appearances, and secrets, and the cruelty of punishing people for who they are and forcing them into playing roles that don’t fit them.While I will try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, I will have to mention the initial surprise because it’s basically impossible to review this play without doing so. So, if you are someone who wants to be completely surprised about everything that happens in a show, this is your warning to stop reading now.  The first scene features a 1950’s dinner party featuring three couples–Bob and Millie Martindale (Mark Kelley and Colleen Backer), Jim and Norma Baxter (Tyson Cole and Sarah Gene Dowling), and Theodore and Kitty Sunderson (Zak Farmer and Deborah Dennert). This scene comes across as something of a send-up of the “typical” 1950s domestic setup–cocktails, cheery smiles, and adoring wives admiring their husbands. In fact, some of the dialogue, particularly from the women, is reminiscent of old-style radio show commercials, in which the characters break from the action to hawk the latest brand of detergent or some other product. The setting is Washington, DC, and Ted, Bob, and Norma all work for the State Department, helping to root out “undesirables” in their midst, such as communist sympathizers, but now, boss Ted has ordered his subordinates Bob and Norma to assist in expanding the scope of the purge beyond politics to sex, including exposing and firing employees deemed to have undesirable lifestyles, including homosexuality and promiscuity. Bob and Norma initially seem to go along, but after the Sundersons leave, we find out there’s a problem. The “perfect” little suburban setup for the Martindales the Baxters is all an act. The real couples are Millie and Norma and Bob and Jim, and they are able to maintain their appearance of being two “typical” 50s heterosexual couples by means of adjoining houses with a secret door between them. This arrangement has worked until now, but after Ted’s new order, things begin to unravel, all while the couples desperately try to maintain the fiction while doubts begin to surface, particularly for Millie, who struggles to keep up the act for the increasingly clingy and socially connected Kitty. There’s also the problem of Bob’s and Norma’s co-worker Barbara (Erin Struckhoff), who has been targeted for her promiscuous reputation but who isn’t about to keep quiet, and who brings even more surprises into the story. It’s a complex plot but expertly structured, with an evolving tone that starts out looking like it’s going to be a comedy but soon morphs into more of an intense, riveting drama. The structure cleverly reflects the theme, as well, since appearances can be deceiving.

The acting here is especially challenging since several of the characters have to play two versions of themselves–the happy, cheerful “perfect” versions and their real selves behind the masks. Everyone is excellent, especially Backer with her shifting between the perky “spokesmodel” type 50s housewife to the more conflicted “unmasked” Millie, and being genuinely torn between wanting to be accepted by society and wanting to express her true self. Dowling, as the initially more forceful Norma, is also excellent as someone for whom the fiction has become much more of a burden than a blessing. There are also strong performances from Cole, as the initially happy-go-lucky Jim, and Kelley as the more rigid, conforming Bob, who is trying to convince everyone that nothing has to change. Struckhoff, as the confrontational Barbara, also shines, as does Dennert as the initially flighty Kitty, who eventually reveals more depth to her character than is first evident. Farmer also makes a memorable impression as the character who changes the least–the inflexible, reactionary Ted. It’s an especially impressive ensemble that supports the challenging, sometimes broadly satirical and sometimes intensely dramatic script especially well.

The look and atmosphere of this show is especially important considering its specific theme, and the 1950s style has been well realized in technical director J. Keller Ryan’s scenic design. Sarah Porter’s costumes and wigs also help to achieve the 1950’s “typical suburban” look and feel. There’s also strong lighting design from Nathan Schroeder and sound by Mark Kelley, all working together in the intimate setting of the Marcelle Theatre to bring the audience into the carefully manufactured world of these characters.

Perfect Arrangement is an expertly crafted play, bringing some laughs initially but especially intense, poignant emotion as the story plays out. It’s an examination of a bygone era, but also a warning for today, as history doesn’t always change as quickly as we think it does. This is another excellent, incisive production from R-S Theatrics.

Colleen Backer, Deborah Dennert, Sarah Gene Dowling
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics is presenting Perfect Arrangement at the Marcelle Theatre until December 23, 2018.

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