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Perfect Arrangement feels like something Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy might star in if

they were alive today. In this witty new comedy, playwright Topher Payne tackles the very timely issue of same-sex marriage with old-school charm. Populated with dapper gents and perfectly coiffed ladies, Perfect Arrangement feels reminiscent of black and white Hollywood romantic comedies like Without Love. Yet, like the best of those silver screen gems, this play plumbs deeper.

The year is 1950, and two D.C. couples struggle to protect their relationships in the days of the Lavender Scare. Bob and Millie Martindale (Andrew Keller and Raven Bonniwell) and Norma and Jim Baxter (Natalie Cutcher and Kiernan McGowan) live next door to one another. While the four adeptly put up a public front of perfectly traditional domestic bliss, they share a secret. The real marriages are between Millie and Norma and Bob and Jim.

The cover has worked for years. The arrangement comes under threat during the McCarthy era, however, because Bob and Norma work for the State Department. In the opening scene, Bob and Norma’s boss, Theodore Sunderson, played convincingly by Zach Brewster-Geisz, places Bob in charge of identifying the homosexual “security risks” within the State Department and having them fired.

At first both couples rely on Bob’s position to protect them from persecution, until their relationships begin to feel the pressure of maintaining an illusion in the face of increased scrutiny. That they are participating in the hounding of their own also corrodes respect the four friends have for one another. When Millie’s past revisits her in the person of a former lover and State Department employee, Barbara Grant, the drama sharpens furthers. As Barbara, Jill Nienhiser has exactly the formidable presence the role requires. You know instantly that this woman won’t be shamed into silence—-and why that spells trouble for the foursome.

The first act is spent mostly establishing the emotional cost of keeping up appearances, with Payne drawing a hard line between the couples’ public and private behavior. While the couples entertain the Sundersons, for instance, the dialogue is formal and fast-clipped, like a movie from the period. Following the Sundersons’ lead, the Baxters and Martindales stick to topics of conversation that reinforce the pristine image of domestic perfection. (Furniture polish is fascinating, don’t you think?) When they’re alone, the facade drops. The content of conversation is instantly elevated. The tone, however, becomes almost distractingly modern, peppered with slang and F-bombs.

More effective in illustrating his point is how the couples relate specifically to the dim-witted Kitty Sunderson. Played by Karen Lange, whom audiences can count on for great comedic timing, Kitty is a bigoted woman who wants to be friends with the Martindales and Baxters. The unenviable task of feigning this friendship falls mostly to Millie, but all four must curry favor with Kitty. Someone so flighty wouldn’t normally be the most powerful person in a room, except perhaps in a frightening period like the Red Scare. She could easily expose them to her husband were she to clue into the truth.

If by the intermission it seems Perfect Arrangement hasn’t progressed beyond a clever, but superficial, exploration of its theme, stick with it. The best is yet to come.

The escalating conflict between the couples plays out through conversations that are both emotionally insightful and politically charged. Arguments range from gender inequality to the differences between how blacks and homosexuals are persecuted to why homosexuals were thought to be so vulnerable to blackmail by Soviets.

The material never becomes dry; Payne’s characters are too realistically drawn for that. Bob, Millie, Norma, and Jim are all products of their time, and have absorbed many of the era’s prejudices. None of them hesitate, for instance, to judge Barbara harshly for her habits in the bedroom, even if in the next breath that they argue for greater freedom for themselves. Nor do any of them have the requisite self-assurance to go public with their own identity in a hostile society. The complexity and humor of the script asks a lot of each actor in the Baxter/Martindale quartet. All of them deliver emotionally connected performances without sacrificing comedy.

To his great credit, Payne stays mindful of the historical knowledge and baggage his audience will bring to the playhouse. Unlike the characters, audiences know that the struggle for gay rights still continues. It’s entirely possible that the opponents of same- sex marriage will experience this play differently than proponents, but plenty of its themes are universal. We are all products of our own time no matter what our political or religious views. And in so far as our capacity to love stems from self-acceptance, we all live in a world where loving openly still requires bravery.

The plays runs at Source June 22 at 8 p.m., June 25 at 8 p.m., and June 29 at 1 p.m.

Photo by C. Stanley Photography, courtesy CulturalDC