Scene one—A lecture theatre somewhere in Manchuria, near the end of the Korean War. In front of Mrs. Lowe and an assembled audience, sit five members of an American platoon: Captain Ben Marco, Sergeant Raymond Shaw, Corporal Andrew Hanley, Private Bobby Lembeck and Private Ed Mavole. Mrs. Lowe jokingly announces that the platoon has been brainwashed into believing that they are present at a meeting of The Garden Club of Northern New Jersey. She further touts the power of brainwashing in the creation of a perfect assassin in Raymond Shaw. Mrs. Lowe demonstrates Raymond’s receptivity trigger—drawing the Queen of Diamonds in a game of solitaire—and then directs him to strangle Ed Mavole and shoot Bobby Lembeck. Ben Marco then repeats the command that has been planted in his brain: that he will recommend Raymond for the Medal of Honor as “a true American hero,” a sentiment that is then echoed by Andrew Hanley. The “ladies” adjourn for tea and sandwiches.
Scene two—The tarmac of Idlewild Airport, many months later. Raymond returns to the United States decorated with the Medal of Honor. He is met by his mother Eleanor Iselin and his stepfather Senator Johnny Iselin, who promote Raymond’s “heroism” before a throng of reporters. Raymond is disgusted with his mother’s opportunism and announces that he has taken a position in New York with Holborn Gaines, the editor of the left-leaning Daily Press.
Scene three—Marco’s apartment. The scene in Manchuria is reenacted, but this time with men and women from a foreign military organization. It is interrupted by Marco’s screams, who has been dreaming the scene in his apartment—revealing that he has had the same dream every night since the war ended.
Scene four—The office of General Tracy; soon after. Marco expresses concern to General Tracy about his recurring dream; Tracy dismisses it as battle fatigue and assigns Marco a less stressful position in public relations for the Secretary of Defense.
Scene five—A press conference, months later. Before television cameras, Senator Iselin interrupts the Secretary of Defense and announces that Communists have infiltrated the department. The news creates a media frenzy and Marco is fired.
Scene six—An office at the Daily Press, directly after. Raymond and Holborn Gaines pick up the news of Senator Iselin’s announcement on the wire. Holborn vows to stop Iselin’s rise. He then leaves for lunch with his old friend Senator Jordon. Raymond refuses to take a call from Marco before daydreaming about the summer he spent with Senator Jordan’s daughter, Jocie.
Scene seven—The woods near the Iselin country house on Long Island, 1951. Raymond sees the younger man he was during the summer he fell in love with Jocie Jordan and the time he spent with her and her father, before Eleanor ended it.
Scene eight—A train from Washington DC to New York, months later. An increasingly unstable Marco is befriended by an attractive stranger, Rosie Chayney, who consoles him before telling him her New York address and telephone number.
Scene nine—Raymond’s apartment in New York, later the same evening. Marco confronts Raymond about his recurring dream and Raymond reveals that Corporal Andrew Hanley sent him a letter from Alaska saying he has had the same dream. While Marco reads the letter, he voices his suspicions about what happened in Korea, along with Raymond and Andrew (in Alaska). Marco leaves, feeling he is on the brink of discovering the truth. The phone rings. Raymond picks it up and begins playing solitaire. When he encounters the Queen of Diamonds, he agrees to the demand of the caller.
Scene ten—The bedroom of Holborn Gaines’ apartment in New York; directly after. Holborn lies in bed. Raymond enters and kills him with a single bullet to his forehead.
Scene eleven—The Iselin home; the next morning. While Johnny practices a speech, Eleanor reads the newspaper announcement about Holborn Gaines’ murder and remarks that Raymond will be promoted because of it. Eleanor notices that Jocie Jordan has returned from Europe and suggests holding a party for her, to gain favor with her father in the upcoming election.
Scene twelve—The office of General Tracy, Washington DC; a day later. General Tracy presents Marco with some photographs. Marco describes the people in the photographs and Tracy reveals that his descriptions match those of Corporal Hanley and that they both identified people of international interest. Marco, greatly relieved that he has finally broken through the mystery, reveals that he will now, at last, be able to sleep—next to Rosie Chaynay.
Scene thirteen—The Iselin home. A costume party is in full swing. General Major Bollinger introduces Johnny Iselin and his nomination for vice president, while Raymond nervously awaits the arrival of Jocie Jordan. Eleanor takes Raymond to the library for a game of solitaire. She’s about to give him a directive when she’s interrupted by Johnny’s announcement that Senator Jordan has just arrived. Eleanor leaves, taking with her the Queen of Diamonds. Jocie appears from a side door. She and Raymond confess that their love for each other is unchanged after all these years and run away after Jocie has discarded her costume: the Queen of Diamonds. Eleanor solicits Senator Jordan’s help in getting Johnny nominated for vice president; Jordan refuses and leaves. Eleanor discovers that Raymond has fled with Jocie and flies into a rage. As the party returns in a wild conga line and freezes, Eleanor sets the stage for the national convention that occurs in Act Two.