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Maple and Vine

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Marin Ireland
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The plot and moral of Jordan Harrison's new play Maple and Vine, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons, can be summed up in a single, familiar saying: "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence." Specifically, a white picket fence, bordering an immaculately manicured lawn in front of a door where a professional deliveryman has lovingly placed a bottle of milk. The deceptively simple 1950s are, for better or worse, the standard by which America—and Americans—continue to be judged. Who can blame Harrison, or any playwright, for wanting to take it on headfirst?

And take it on he does, pulling few punches as he examines the fact, fiction, and blurred areas between the two that constitute the "idyllic" life of the early Cold War era. The only problem with Harrison's treatment, and it's not a minor one, is that he's devised no concrete way of moving beyond the strict limitations of his otherwise fascinating and potentially hilarious premise. After establishing how at odds Katha (Marin Ireland), a book editor, is with the vagaries and complexities of life in 2011, and the desire of her Japanese-American plastic-surgeon husband Ryu (Peter Kim) to help set her back on the path to wellness, there's not much the playwright can do except let them stew in what Katha is positive she needs.

That comes courtesy of Dean (Trent Dawson), the public liaison for the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence (or SDO), a Midwestern community that goes to extravagant lengths to replicate and preserve every aspect of life as it was in the United States in 1955. Upon meeting Dean, clad in a crisp gray suit and a fedora, Katha is immediately intrigued; Ryu is a harder sell, but eventually agrees. The two join the SDO for a six-month trial period, during which Katha learns to cook and clean, Ryu learns to construct boxes and deal with the institutional racism afforded Asian-Americans in the post-War years, and both see how Ryu's plant supervisor, Roger (Pedro Pascal), and Dean cope with... well, the love that back then dare not spoke its name.

Harrison pursues a number of effervescent avenues for outlining the borders of the world-within-a-world, from glimpses of the no-nonsense, hard-sell orientation sessions with Dean and his wife, Ellen (Jeanine Serralles), to dinner parties loaded with hors d'oeuvres made by the enterprising Katha—or, in SDO speak, Kathy. But after the clever, tense setup, the follow-through is strangely sterile, even predictable. Kathy and Ryu become engrossed in their new old life, while Roger, Dean, and Ellen discover the jagged seams in their supposedly perfect existence. The arresting Act I finale, in which the bobbed-hair Kathy is born before your eyes with just a change of Ilona Somogyi's costumes, is as sparkling as the show gets. Deeper, more original insight into the impact the SDO might have on modern people, is not on the guest list.

Ireland is marvelous as both the trodden-upon Katha and the freer-souled Kathy, transmitting an infectious joy as her character reconnects with the spirit she thought she'd lost; she plays everything for keeps, and doesn't slip into the parody that could come easily with this kind of transformation. Kim is a bit stiff throughout, and doesn't undergo the same emotional about-face that Ireland makes so convincing, but he effectively projects the wry skepticism so crucial for Ryu. Dawson and Serralles, wearing shiny, plastic smiles and shiny, immovable hair, are just right as the automaton-like guides to the SDO who are desperately in need of their own reprogramming. Pascal's agitator role is the most sketchily written, but he's fine as the embodiment of human chaos within a pocket of order.

All the necessary elements are present, but what's missing is vividity. Director Anne Kauffman has staged the show decently enough, but doesn't draw enough distinctions between life inside and outside the SDO, leaving both halves of the action feeling uncomfortably the same. Alexander Dodge's set doesn't help: A curious blend of metal scaffolding and platforms that outline various rooms (and, at one point, even a full roof), it looks so modern that it essentially mocks the ostensibly more organic SDO scenes all by itself. And rendering the "real-world" largely in shades of grey and the SDO scenes in pinks and yellows is overplaying the hand: The question of what to think is never left to the audience.

Harrison, however, doesn't leave much room for freedom of movement. He cycles through, breaks up, and reconfigures various clich├ęs, but unleashes no surprises or insights that can't be found in that aforementioned proverb. This never tires, because the conflation of past and present is amusing no matter what, but it also never enlightens.

You feel a shiver of dramatic danger only once, in the second act, when Roger spray-paints a devastating word across six identical-but-different doors depicting the tract-housing eternity in which he's trapped. That word, which won't be revealed here, is innocuous to us, but would justly be terrifying, even world-changing, to SDO dwellers. This bloody confrontation of reality with self-imposed fantasy demonstrates that Harrison is willing and able to take chances with his familiar conceit. What a shame that, for most of Maple and Vine, he chooses not to.

Maple and Vine
Through December 23
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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