2:39 pm Dec. 8, 2011
In the new play Maple and Vine, at Playwrights Horizons, Katha (Marin Ireland) wants to join a Midwestern community—not a cult, she tells a suspicious co-worker—where it's perpetually 1955.
Cut off from the rest of the world, it's a place where Eisenhower is president, "I Love Lucy" dominates the airwaves, and everybody pretends that they've never heard of sushi or lattes or cell phones.
Katha is a pretty much basket case, so beaten down by the pressures of modern life (a go-nowhere job, noisy neighbors) that she can barely get out of bed, where she comforts herself with old episodes of "Anne of Green Gables" on YouTube. And after a miscarriage six months before the action of the play, Katha can't sleep and her Japanese-American husband Ryu (Peter Kim) bursts into tears at seemingly innocuous statements.
No wonder Katha is intrigued when she runs into an unnaturally cheerful man dressed in a '50s-era business suit. (She initially assumes it's a downtown affectation, a hip-to-be-square fashion trend.) When the smooth-talking Dean (Trent Dawson) talks up his group's midcentury mindset, free from the distractions of modern life, she's ready to sign on the dotted line.
It turns out that freedom isn't exactly what Dean and the rest of the community are searching for. Dean's picture-perfect wife Ellen (Jeanine Serralles) reveals that she gets a thrill from having "some repression, some rich subtext" in her life. Dean and Ellen thrive on having fewer choices, and pretty soon Katha (rechristened Kathy) and Ryu do as well. But then Ryu sees something disturbing from their bedroom window.
Playwright Jordan Harrison, who developed the play with the theater group The Civilians after conducting an "investigation" that included interviews with cult members and technology workers, spends too much time on the setup and not enough on the delivery, leaving some of the issues brought up in the second act unexplored. But there are a couple of intriguing scenes late in the play, including one where Kathy, speaking at a meeting of the "authenticity committee," notes that a mixed-race couple would have encountered some prejudice in the '50s. She has a few helpful suggestions for her neighbors: They might want to stare at her more in the grocery store, for example. It's a wonderfully creepy moment.
Playing a bundle of neuroses is the specialty of Marin Ireland, who played a similarly tightly wound character last year in Lisa Kron's In the Wake. But she channels her inner June Cleaver with surprising ease: Her shoulders drop, her posture straightens, and a calm expression spreads over her face. Katha doesn't quite become a Stepford wife, but only because she has chosen for herself to be the perfect housewife.
Serralles, who does double duty playing Katha's gossipy co-worker Jenna, nearly walks away with the show as Ellen. She's hilarious, and a little haunting, before she even utters a word. She strikes a period pose—one hand on her outthrust hip, the other dangling at her side—that calls to mind Kim Novak from Vertigo. Even as she encourages newcomers to drink the Kool-Aid, you understand that Ellen herself has found it difficult to swallow. Talk about a "rich subtext": Serralles finds an inner life for Ellen that goes beyond what's found in the script.
As Dean and Ryu, Dawson and Kim don't fare quite as well, mostly because the husbands aren't as well drawn as the wives. This is a problem for the play, because the main conflict concerns Dean's reason for joining the community in the first place. (I won't mention what it is, but you'll probably guess early on.) I did enjoy watching the fifth cast member, Pedro Pascal, who nicely contrasts his dual roles as Kathy's flaming gay co-worker Omar and Ryu's macho boss Roger.
As directed by Anne Kauffman, the play feels a little too episodic. A big problem is the overly complicated set by Alexander Dodge, which requires a different platform to be raised from below the stage or rolled in from the wings for almost every scene. (The four-man backstage crew is constantly in view of the audience, and even gets its own curtain call.) I guess that Kauffman and Dodge are making a point about how we compartmentalize our lives, cutting ourselves off from other people, but for me it felt like repeatedly hitting the gas and slamming on the breaks.
Maple and Vine reveals that Harrison has a good ear for the inflections of modern-day New Yorkers, especially in early scenes between Katha and Ryu. And he makes the bored banter between Omar and Jenna, including a discussion about ordering "fancy salads" for lunch, both hilarious and spot on. And if the dialog for the '50s doesn't ring as true, it seems appropriate because it's a fake '50s anyway.
Maple and Vine is playing at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, between Ninth and Tenth avenues. Tickets are available at (212) 279-4200 or playwrightshorizons.org.
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