Jordan Harrison racks up beaucoup points for originality with “Maple and Vine,” a satirical fantasy about a contempo married couple who chuck their professionally successful but stressful urban lives to take up residence in a re-enactment community in a suburb where it is forever 1955. Play takes a narrow view of the complex social systems that gave postwar America its sense of stability, and the plot turns on a cliched sexual-identity crisis. But the writing is clever and Anne Kauffman’s exceptionally smart production adds considerably to the entertainment value.
A lot of hands helped shape this darkly appealing fairy tale. Script was commissioned by the Actors Theater of Louisville and Berkeley Rep and originally developed by the Civilians. Playwrights Horizons stepped in after its premiere production at the 2011 Humana Festival.
The attractive physical design of the show is a study in contrasts. On Alexander Dodge’s set, the 21st century is rendered in neon blues, rain-streaked glass, and highly polished metal surfaces — a nice reflection of the chilly modern world inhabited by Katha (Marin Ireland), a publishing exec, and her husband Ryu (Peter Kim), a plastic surgeon.
Ireland serves up a painfully funny portrait of nerve-wracked Katha, who avoids having a total meltdown by quitting her job. Husband Ryu, a sensitive and manly man in Kim’s appealing perf, jettisons his own career ambitions to support his depressive spouse when she suggests they unplug themselves from their isolating cellphones and iPods and videogames and take an extended vacation in the more interactive 1950s.
Harrison engineers their escape via the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, a fanciful organization of 1950s re-enactors who have built a model suburb of that vapid period. Unlike the black-and-white movies of that decade, this restoration community exists in the real world and in living color — the cue for the designers to drench the stage in hot lights and haul out the Danish Modern furniture and crinoline petticoats. (Ilona Somogyi’s wasp-waisted dresses are authentically ghastly.)
Dean, the jolly recruiter for SDO (played with a relentless smile by Trent Dawson) and his adoring wife Ellen (Jeanine Serralles, flashing her own rictus smile), serve as teachers and guides to this Technicolor fantasy world. Dean gets Ryu a job on the assembly line at the local box factory, Ellen gives Katha her recipe for pigs-in-a-blanket, and before long, the newcomers are more or less adjusted to their rigid roles.
Taken on this superficial level, “Maple and Vine” is harmless fun. But outside of a scaled-down cocktail party (with period-appropriate Smirnoff vodka, not modern-day Grey Goose) and a game of charades, the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence doesn’t really deliver the human connections that Dean promised these pigeons when he recruited them. The scenes are too sketchy, the cast of characters too modest, and the scribe’s ambitions too narrow to produce the bowling leagues, the whist parties, the knitting circles, the Bingo nights, the PTA meetings, the social club dances, and the high-school football games that comprised the fabric of community life.
But if he doesn’t do justice to the social scene, Harrison is more secure writing about the moral climate, which he represents as more repressive than innocent. As a Japanese-American in this postwar world, Ryu doesn’t have a prayer of getting off the assembly line, and Katha just has to lump it when she realizes that the pill hasn’t been invented yet.
Funny thing about nostalgia, the reality is always more complicated than the dream. And the period evils of racial prejudice and sexual suppression are obviously easier targets for Harrison to take on than the period values of political patriotism and marital fidelity.