Wouldn't it be swell if we could just unplug ourselves from contemporary life completely and live like it was 1955? That's the question posed by the play Maple & Vine which made its West Coast debut last week at the American Conservatory Theater. The play is a lightweight and clever bit of social commentary that uses humor to delve both into the ennui many of us feel living our lives on the internet and hidden in our apartments, and into several of the ways that the social progess of the last 60 years is, truly, a good thing.
Playwright Jordan Harrison says he was inspired by stories of his friends, all in their 30s, who all did things like live in a shack in India for six months or move to Vermont to raise chickens because they had a common impulse to "slow down and limit our choices." He takes this to a comical extreme in Maple & Vine by inventing something called the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence (SDO), which exists in a gated community somewhere in a "landlocked Midwestern state" and where everyone lives as if it were, perpetually, 1955. Now, this isn't just a bit of costume and role-play mind you; they have a committee devoted to authenticity, where they need to learn how to be less tolerant of non-white people, for instance, and to memorize all the foods that they have, as citizens of 1955, never heard of, including hummus, sushi, and "chipotle anything."
Main characters Katha (Emily Donahoe) and her Japanese-American husband Ryu (Nelson Lee) are burnt-out New Yorkers who decide one day, six months after a devastating miscarriage, to leave their jobs as a book editor and plastic surgeon to join this cult-like organization and uproot their lives to the SDO for six months. What follows is a series of somewhat predictable conflicts when you take modern people and try to force them back in time. For instance: Can modern, neurotic Katha become a frivolous housewife overnight who takes pleasure in making crab puffs? (The answer is a resounding yes.) Also: How does an interracial couple fit in to a neighborhood when everyone's trying to be authentic in as racist a fashion as they can be? Is it easy to pretend to be that racist? And can gay people exist in this world?
The questions are interesting, and the answers are sort of interesting. It feels like the play doesn't try to delve too deeply into any of them, mostly skimming the surface of this bizarro world and dipping in long enough to acknowledge that yes, the sexual politics of 1955 are totally oppressive. But still, Katha and Ryu, being heterosexual, find happiness in this artificial reality, and they stay there well past their initial six months, even though the play ends up acknowledging that modern life, the internet, and food delivered to your door are all good things that free us up to make different choices with our lives and spend our time in different ways.
The strongest performances in ACT's production come from two of the men, Jamison Jones as Dean, the upstanding gentlemen with a secret who serves as the ambassador of sorts to the SDO; and Danny Bernardy as Roger, a man stuck in 1955 willfully, but a little regretfully, who works alongside Ryu at a cardboard box factory. The women, meanwhile, Donahoe and Julia Coffey as Ellen/Jenna, both have outsized acting styles that lend themselves better to the 50s-era stuff than the contemporary scenes, but both are competent performers who get the majority of the funniest lines.
The direction by Mark Rucker is well paced, and the simple sets by Ralph Funicello that descend from the flyspace and slide out slickly from the sides of the stage are all smartly conceived.
We'd recommend the show to anyone with family in from out of town (at least if they're not staunchly red-state) and to people in the mood for some lightly thought-provoking comedy.
Maple & Vine plays through April 22 at ACT, at 415 Geary Street. Get tickets here.