Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Perfect Arrangement
Paradise Valley Community College
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's reviews of 20th Century Blues, The Lady's Not for Burning and Women in Jeopardy

Melissa Shank, Melissa Taylor, Lauren Isherwood,
Lex Barker, and Michael Workman

Photo by Taylor McMurray
Topher Payne's play Perfect Arrangement, which is set in 1950 and focuses on the fallout from a governmental morality task force that seeks out "deviants," is just as timely today in a world where hate crimes and discrimination are still in the news and we now have to also deal with "cancel culture," where seemingly anyone can be "cancelled" if they don't think or believe the way the person doing the canceling does. With a gifted cast and sure-footed direction, Paradise Valley Community College presents the Phoenix premiere of this heartbreaking 2014 play in a winning production.

Set in the living room of a Georgetown home in 1950, the play focuses on two State Department employees, Bob Martindale and his secretary Norma Baxter, and their respective spouses Millie and Jimmy. The couples are close friends and live next door to each other but they also have a secret: they are in same-sex relationships with each other's spouse and the foursome have secretly found a way to pass as heterosexual couples through marriages of convenience. They even go through the coat closet in one of the houses to get to the other house unnoticed. This way, Bob can come home to the house the public believes that he and Millie share but go through the coat closet to get to the house he lives in with Jimmy, while Norma can do the opposite.

The foursome think they have everything set in order to live happily ever after until Bob and Norma are placed on a task force looking for security risks that go beyond the communists they previously went after and removed them from their government jobs to now include homosexuals. With the "Lavender Scare" on the rise, and someone from the past who threatens to reveal the truth, can the two couples find a way to keep their secret safe, their jobs secure, and their relationships intact?

Payne's script is taut, with an intriguing plot, great pacing, pops of comedy to help lighten the more dramatic moments, and an ending that packs a wallop. While the women are more fully fleshed out characters compared to the men, and since the play is set in Norma and Millie's living room, they also get more stage time, Payne does a great job depicting the obstacles the couples have to navigate and the elaborate ways the couples go in order to pass as married heterosexuals. But it's clear that Payne is also showing us that the compromises the four make aren't always worth it and the exhaustion of living a lie can take its toll. As Norma says, "We lie, it's what we do. It's all we do."

Payne also does a great job depicting how they've mostly given up any hope of having the future they once thought they would have, since must constantly pretend to be something they aren't. He also does a good job portraying the struggle of weighing whether or not it's worth it to live their lives truthfully, since that would most likely mean they'd lose their jobs and their livelihoods. While it's a somewhat bleak picture, considering that the Stonewall riots that vaulted the gay rights movement forward didn't happen for almost 20 years after the time of the play, there is also some hope in the ending based on certain decisions the characters make.

Director Joe Flowers does an admirable job of ensuring that the shifts in tone and the sense of urgency in the last 30 minutes are realistically portrayed and that the few comic moments in the piece aren't too farcical. His cast all create believable characters with performances that truly value the difficult decisions they have to make. His staging is quite effective on William M. Deihl II's static but serviceable living room set. CeCe Sickler's smart costumes and the hair and makeup designs by Sam Brown ground the production in the period.

Lauren Isherwood and Melissa Taylor are excellent as Norma and Millie, respectively. Isherwood has several heartbreaking moments when she shows how Norma longs for the things she doesn't believe she'll ever have, and Taylor is very good as the young woman who realizes something from her past may threaten her future. While Lex Barker and Michael Workman have less to do and less fleshed-out characters to play as Jimmy and Bob, respectively, when compared to the roles of Norma and Millie, they both do good work and also create a believable couple. Barker is quite good and very charming as the overreacting Jimmy, and Workman is effective portraying a man who doesn't quite know what to do when he realizes the house of cards he's built is starting to crumble around him and the scheme he's put into place starts to drastically impact those closest to him.

Melissa Shank is wonderful and no-nonsense as the bold and unapologetic Barbara Grant, who has a past that may lead to her being a possible security risk to the government. Delaney Welch is endearing as the bubble-headed Kitty Sunderson, and Matt Callahan is fine as Bob and Norma's boss, and Kitty's husband, Theodore Sunderson.

Perfect Arrangement is a very good play and a poignant lesson of how difficult things used to be for gay men and lesbians in the 1950s who weren't able to be who they truly were without it greatly impacting their lives. It's also an important reminder that today, 70 years later, with hate crimes and discrimination still happening, members of minority groups still have a long way to go before things will truly be better.

Perfect Arrangement runs through February 27, 2022, at Paradise Valley Community College, 18401 North 32nd Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 602-787-7738

Director: Joe Flowers
Producer: Andrea Robertson
Set & Properties Designer: William M. Deihl II
Lighting Designer: Josh Brickhouse
Costume Designer: CeCe Sickler
Hair & Makeup Designer: Sam Brown
Sound Designer: Joe Flowers and Ryan Wentzel
Stage Manager: MacKenzie Schmid

Cast: (in alphabetical order:
Jim Baxter: Lex Barker
Theodore Sunderson: Matt Callahan
Norma Baxter: Lauren Isherwood
Barbara Grant: Melissa Shank
Millie Martindale: Melissa Taylor
Kitty Sunderson: Delaney Welch
Bob Martindale: Michael Workman