Maple and Vine
Written by Jordan Harrison
Directed by Anne Kauffman
"First of all, welcome," says Dean. "Welcome to the SDO." Dean (Trent Dawson) speaks in a bright, booming voice that immediately evokes mediated versions of mid-century America. He wears a grey flannel suit, uniform of the paradigmatic 50s breadwinner, and when complimented on it responds in total earnestness, "Thank you. I have the same one in navy and dark brown." Dean is the leader of the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, a gated community of re-enactors in the Midwest perpetually living in 1955. Dean and his wife Ellen (Jeanine Serralles) recruit men and women so frustrated with contemporary life that they're willing to give it all up for the wholesome simplicity of 50s suburbia. Their latest target couple: Katha and Ryu (Marin Ireland and Peter Kim), a New York City publishing executive and plastic surgeon, respectively, both extremely harried. Dean's greeting, spoken directly to the audience, opens the second scene of Jordan Harrison's Maple and Vine
(at Playwrights Horizons
through December 23). By then we've already met Ryu and Katha, and guessed where they're headed; if there's one major fault to find with this magical realist comedy-cum-period melodrama it's that too much of its first half is devoted to flat exposition. (An upshot of this tedious introductory act is that it affords many additional set changes; in all seriousness, the transitions between Alexander Dodge's spectacular scenic designs could sustain a riveting show all to themselves, and the stage crew get a much-deserved bow at curtain call.)
Things get much, much more interesting after intermission, as Ryu and Kathy—forced to change her name to be more period-appropriate—settle into their new era. The community prizes authenticity—replete with a sinister, Stepford Wives
-y, all-female authenticity committee—so Ryu, though born and raised in California, is treated with a queasy-making mix of exoticism and condescending over-kindness. Much is made of the period's pervasive post-war guilt about the internment camps to which Japanese-Americans were sent and, despite himself, Ryu makes up a story about his sister being imprisoned in one to more fully flesh out his SDO character. Kathy, meanwhile, seems destined to usurp Ellen's position as vice president of the authenticity committee, even going so far as to campaign in favor of banning contraception in the name of historical verisimilitude. Evidently, all is not well in the paradisiacal 50s town, and its leaders' faltering semblance of a marriage makes that all the more clear.
We understand these characters' decision to escape the cacophonous present for a simpler time, and though Harrison has a lot of fun with this conceit early on the tone shifts increasingly towards something more charged, dark and complex. He asks how much we'll sacrifice for comfort, and how we manage our competing desires for stability and change. Ireland and Kim, awkward together at first—more so than their marital absenteeism justifies—transform spectacularly after joining the SDO. Serralles and Dawson are pitch-perfect doing the inverse, presented as paradigms of studied yet effortless 50s domestic bliss before cracking and unraveling, Pleasantville
-like. The second act makes up for the first's slow start and concludes with a dreamily ambiguous scene, one that finally blurs the characters' 50s and contemporary selves beyond distinction.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)