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Maple and Vine
By Elyse Sommer
Katha doesn't accept Ryu's above quoted statement that people aren't ever happy and that the whole idea of questioning whether one is or isn't happy never occurred to people long ago since they were too busy. Instead it sets her to wondering: "Maybe thatís what happy is. Not having enough time to wonder if youíre happy." Certain neither she or Ryu have a lot of spare time. She's a book editor at a large New York publishing house, he's a cosmetic surgeon and both are tethered to their digital gadgets.
Probably, if Katha weren't still traumatized by a miscarriage (sleepwalking dreams, lack of interest in sex or her job) happiness wouldn't be up for this sort of pillow talk. And if Ryu insisted that his wife received some help to deal with her depression, she wouldn't up and quit her job. It would be even more unlikely that she would fall for the pitch of the recruiter from the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, a Midwestern community whose members are dedicated renactors of life as it was in the period after World War II, specifically the mid-1950s, who just happens to stop by the park bench where she's having lunch to ask for directions to the bullding where she worked until her impulsive retirement.
Of course if Katha were treated by a capable health care professional for her post-miscarriage depression, Harrison's sci-fi flavored fantasy would be a non-starter. She wouldn't have seen being a proper small town homemaker circa 1955 as a happy alternative to a less wired and overly busy world.
Since Katha's fragile mental health makes her being hooked into leaving her New York life for a ranch house on Maple and Vine Street of the artificially created cult community at least somewhat believable. But that Ryu, a doctor could be persuaded to throw up everything to become Ozzie to her Harriet, is the play's fatal flaw. Sure he loves her and understands her pain over the baby that died 20 weeks into the pregnancy, and he admits he doesn't love his chosen specialty — but he's mentally stable and would be more likely to take time out to credentialize himself in a specialty more to his liking than succumbing to his wife's pleas and buy into the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence's pitchman. To make his doing so even harder to believe, members of this oddball community are also required to work in factories they seem to own which hints at but never really explains a corrupt profit motif. People in the 1950s may not have had beepers and cell phones and ipads, but the housing developments that sprang up after the war were occupied by plenty of doctors and managers.
The play which was originally commissioned for the Civilians, a company known for its theatrical documentary style work cobbled together from interviews and heavily infused with music. Beautiful City about the evangelical Christians in Colorado Springs is a case in point. Considering the imagination at work in Harrison's Doris to Darlene, a Cautionary Valentine in 2007 and Amazons and Their Men, it's easy to understand why director Anne Kauffman thought he was a good choice for bringing her idea for a play that would reconsider life in a not too distant but seemingly less complicated world to fruition. But Maple and Vine is neither leavened by music, or grounded in believable details; nor does it have the bite of really solid social satire. Kauffman's directing it with the focus more on the reality than edgy fantasy doesn't help.
Marin Ireland, who I've never known to do anything less than outstanding work, does her utmost to make Katha-Kathy to make her less of an over-the-top '50s archetype. Her cast mates also perform admirably — Peter Kim as the multi-cultural husband who as part of SDO's "reenactor authenticity" has to put up with the period's less than happiness promoting prejudices against "Orientals" . . .Trent Dawson and Jeanine Seralles as Dean and Ellen (also as a woman from Katha's office world) the community's head honchos whose perfect marriage turns out to be unsurprisingly imperfect . . . Pedro Pascal as Omar the successor to Katha's editing job and, at the SDO community, as Roger who's Ruy's co-worker at the box factory as well as Pandora's Box character in Dean and Ellen's life.
Playwrights Horizon certainly can't be faulted for not supporting this production with a top drawer design team as well as cast. Ilona Somogyi's costumes are right on the button and great fun. However, Alexander Dodge's scenic design is too much of a good thing. Sure the central platform that slides up and down like an elevator on Dodge's two-level set and walls that turn and turn again are impressive. But all this fussy scene changing that makes enough use of prop movers to warrant their taking a curtain call with the cast, is distracting. What's more, it makes for inorganic between scenes exits for the actors which further diminishes audience engagement.
As I said at the beginning of this review, this is the second play I saw within the last week about people unhappy with the state of our world generally and their lives in particular. Yet a third play seen during the same period, Neighborhood Watch by Alan Ayckbourn, revolves around group of people who are so happy with their ordinary middle class London suburban life. No surreal era traveling. What drives this eventually also over-the-top plot is not that the characters moved to their community as an alternative to extreme unhappiness, but that they're willing to go to considerable lengths to protect the status quo. As Mr. Ayckbourn proves, you don't have to go back to another time (especially the already frequently parodies 1950s) to find plenty to satirize in the present, and do so more effectively than Mr. Harrison and Anne Kauffman have done..
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