Is it a must-see? Coming from a free country, let’s just say Maple and Vine at the City Theatre is a you-really-ought-to-see-it. The play is entertainingly weird, not to mention weirdly entertaining. It is a rare idea well done; and it will leave you thinking. Unless you prefer not to think too much. Which is sort of what the play is about. I think. (I am still shaking my head and chuckling over Maple and Vine as I write this.)
By now you may have heard the outline of the plot. We begin with a young professional couple feeling distraught and disaffected — especially the woman, Katha (Robin Abramson), who spends hours hunched over her laptop screen, searching vainly for cyber-solace. Then one day on the street, as if out of a warp in space/time, along comes Dean (Greg McFadden). He’s like a smarmier version of Eric Idle emerging from the refrigerator to sing the Galaxy Song to the distraught housewife in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. The difference is, Dean’s notion of the quest for meaning has nothing to do with marveling at the starry infinitude of the galaxies. Quite the opposite.
Dean and his wife, the beaming, automatonic Ellen (Caralyn Kozlowski), run a gated community where people can live in a simpler, more confined world. Their utopia is a total replica of an American suburb in 1955. No item, activity, or even discussion of anything later than this mid-fifties date is allowed.
With no Internet or cell phones, you get “less information!”, exults Dean, and you have “real neighbors” instead of virtual Friends. No lattes, no low-carb options, and no liberation movements, either. The deal here is Ozzie bringing home the white bread and red meat while Harriet holds down the home front and wears a girdle to hold in her carbo-load. Freed from the vexing infinity of choices in today’s society, everyone can enjoy the certainty of defined roles and shared values, so it’s almost like Amish paradise, only better. Because you also get cocktails and washing machines and Lucy on TV.
Katha persuades her husband — a Japanese-American plastic surgeon named Ryu (Nelson Lee) — to make the move. Naturally, there are plenty of period-switching jokes, and the vintage fifties clothing is way cool. (If the wardrobe is someday liquidated I want first dibs on Dean’s brown suit.) And yes, the newcomers soon discover all is not perfect in Fifties Land. A lovely evening with friends over for cocktails turns into a howling drunkfest, since apparently that’s the only way some people can get loose enough to play, um, charades. Two gay men, whose relationship has to stay in the closet, are reduced to bickering in the midnight shadows at the very corner of Maple and Vine.
There’s more, but at this point I must confess that going into the play, I had misgivings. Although the back-to-the-fifties premise sounded intriguing and the playwright (Brooklyn-based Jordan Harrison) is highly regarded, one tends to be wary of a play or movie hinged on a single clever idea: will the premise wear thin? One grows more wary when the subject is the fifties, an era easily stereotyped, cartoon-ized and lampooned. To mix metaphors, my concern was, would the play be a one-trick pony that flogs a barrel of dead ducks?
Happily, it isn’t a superficial journey. Maple and Vine moves briskly through sequences of short scenes, at times in fact cartoony (or shall we say “sketchy”), but it shows what good cartoons can do. They are lean quick-hitters that strike deep.
Take, for instance, the bit about the Authenticity Committee. The town has a group of ladies charged with keeping everything 1955-appropriate, and Katha — now going by “Kathy” as part of her attempt to fit in — shows up to thank her new neighbors for being so welcoming. But then she proposes an improvement. If the goal is to impart “authentic experiences,” shouldn’t they show a little hostility toward her mixed marriage to a Japanese man?
That is more than a fifties gag. The scene tickled my irony region in several places, tapping chords of essential human weirdness which I think many of us share. Such as the deep-seated feelings of wrongness that beg for punishment, even when you know you haven’t done wrong. Or the crazy urge to put obstacles in your own path, in the name of who-knows-what. And speaking of Authenticity, we hold this quality nearly sacred, but what is it anyhow, and have you ever TRIED to be “authentic”? It’s a paradox inside a paradox, isn’t it?
Wish that I could write scenes that do so much in so little stage time. Also wish I could act as nicely as the actors in the City Theatre cast. Watch Robin Abramson play the role of a modern woman stepping into the role of a fifties housewife-hostess: see how her body language changes. Watch how the closet man (Ross Beschler) flips when somebody detects his secret. Watch how Dean and Ellen pretend to maintain the pretense, until …
Hey, enough spoilers. Just one line from near the end, which maybe sums up a lot: “The machinery worked so smoothly that people never realized it was changing them.”
Maple and Vine, directed by Kip Fagan, runs Tuesdays through Sundays until November 4. Tickets are going fast, $35-$55 at the City Theatre website or call 412-431-CITY. Have fun. And keep the change.
Written by Mike Vargo, a longtime writer and editor based in Pittsburgh, has himself performed on stage but “not very well,” he says. So he sticks to writing about it.
Photos courtesy of City Theatre and Suellen Fitzsimmons.