Sunday, November 27, 2011

Back to the Good Old Days with "Maple and Vine"

Photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Do you love your life? 

Do you love your job?

If your answer to either or both of these questions is “not really,” then maybe you are up for joining a community whose members have all elected to eschew the hustle and bustle of life in the fast lane and relocate to a world that is permanently anchored to the year 1955.

That is the premise of Jordan Harrison’s satiric new play, Maple and Vine, now in previews at Playwrights Horizons. 

The unnamed community, located somewhere in the Midwest (or possibly, in The Twilight Zone) could be called "Pleasantville," "Stepford," or even "The Village," as Maple and Vine brings to mind all of these previously-depicted fictional locales, where folks are unencumbered by cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, and reality TV. 

In Act I, we meet a high-powered New York couple, Katha and Ryu, (she a publishing executive, he a plastic surgeon), who are seeking to escape the hamster cage that has become their lives.  Katha (well played by Marin Ireland) can no longer cope, having been pushed to the edge following the miscarriage of their long-desired child. Ryu (Peter Kim) wants nothing more than to be a supportive husband but is close to his own breaking point, torn as he is between the demands of his liposuction-seeking clientele and the desperate needs of his wife.

A promise of relief comes in the form of Dean (Trent Dawson), a pitchman for the "Society for Dynamic Obsolescence," the 1950s reenactment organization he represents.  This is no cult, he promises, but a way to escape the dehumanizing pressures of 21st century life.  Try it for six months, he suggests.  See what you think.

So Katha (renamed “Kathy” by the community’s "Authenticity Committee") and Ryu take the plunge.  Soon she is spending her days under the tutelage of Dean’s wife Ellen (Jeanine Serralles), learning the difference between chopping vegetables and dicing them, and he is employed at a box factory, where the source of greatest pride is being able to assemble a box in 30 seconds, under the watchful eye of his friendly yet somewhat threatening supervisor, Roger (Pedro Pascal). 

As the rest of the play unfolds, we get glimpses into the parts of life in 1950s America that many of us would consider to be less desirable, with respect to social norms about race relations, sexual orientation, the role of women, and a rigid adherence to a strict set of rules for both overt and covert behavior. (For a reference guide, consult Peyton Place).

Certainly the buttoned-down '50s is a an apt target for satire, but Jordan Harrison, the playwright, gives us mostly episodic sit-com humor and not nearly enough of the kind of edgy bite that Maple and Vine needs in order to breathe new life into what already has been well-mined territory.  I can imagine, for example, what someone like Christopher Durang might have been able to do with the material. 

A great deal of editing, including slashing most of the first act set-up (as if you could provide enough exposition to establish what follows as anything other than a fantasy), and a greater attention to sharpening the details of Katha’s and Ryu’s new lives, might still result in a strong one-act with some real zing.  The same could be said of Anne Kauffman’s overly fussy direction.   "Less is more" is an adage that would fit in well with the play’s conceit of downsizing lives.  

Harrison does raise some interesting ideas that might benefit from deeper examination.  For instance, what would it really mean to be given the opportunity to reinvent yourself?  Can we truly leave our past behind, or will it always resurface to bite us in the rear?  These are potentially intriguing aspects of identity that are dealt with in a shallow way  in Maple and Vine, yet which could have given the play the focus that is currently lacking.
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Playwright’s Horizons is continuing its policy of offering discounted tickets for the regular run through December 23.

Order by November 30 and use the code VINEGR
$40 (reg. $70) for all performances Nov. 19-27
$50 (reg. $70) for all other performances Nov. 29-Dec. 23

Or call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 between noon and 8 p.m. daily, or purchase from the Ticket Central Box Office, 416 W. 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues

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