Firehouse Theatre’s ‘Maple and Vine’ moves the couple next door to the Eisenhower Era
Had it up to here with the over-scheduled, information-saturated, distraction-filled frenzy that is contemporary American life?
Jordan Harrison’s dark whimsy, Maple and Vine, now playing at The Firehouse Theatre, follows the fortunes of a stressed-out young New York couple who choose to flee their unfulfilling lives and move to a gated community that meticulously recreates the clipped lawns and crisp social mores of an earlier time, specifically the year 1955.
This is not Back to the Future. It is not 1955. This community just chooses to live as if it were.
We first meet the discontented Katha (McLean Jesse) and her Japanese-American husband, Ryu (Xander H. Wong), in the bleak predawn hours. Sleep has been eluding Katha for some time, and she’s tired of taking the pharmaceutical route to escape the hamster wheel of petty work-related obsessions churning through her mind: “I lie here all night thinking about the whole day in front of me,” she says. “I write imaginary e-mails, I make imaginary trips to the copy room, so when I actually live it, it’s like I’m doing it all over again — like Sisyphus.”
Katha is facing full-blown burnout at her publishing job — she stares into space zombie-eyed, as her co-workers giggle and gossip — and Ryu’s profession as a plastic surgeon, fixing and re-fixing the faces of pampered women, is no more fulfilling. The weight of their dissatisfactions has been doubled by the loss of a much-hoped-for baby six months ago.
Katha meets a perky fellow named Dean (Landon Nagel) in the park one day, and her willingness to lend an ear to his sales pitch for a kooky-sounding community — the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, it is called — doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.
In chatty monologues Dean and his equally enthusiastic wife, Ellen (Addie Barnhart), address the audience directly, as potential recruits to the S.D.O.
Ellen lists the foods that “you’ve never heard of” and are thus strictly off limits, from focaccia to caffè lattes. But she brightly adds, “What you get — is salt.” Dean admits to the difficulty of adjusting to a more highly structured life but believes it’s an improvement in a world devoid of order. “We may seem behind bars to them,” he says of the population adrift in the outside world. “But to us they are behind the bars.”
McLean Jesse endows Katha with a frenetic energy and desperate hunger for contentment. She documents the transformation from harried executive to placid housewife with tiny, revelatory gestures and fleeting, intense expressions. It’s a multilevel performance, with Jesse playing Katha as both her contemporary self and her 1950s incarnation, sometimes simultaneously.
Xander H. Wong is too young to be instantly believable as an established Manhattan plastic surgeon, but if you put on your Doogie Howser hat, the distraction soon subsides and he delivers a convincing performance in the underwritten role of Ryu, the husband so in love with and concerned about his wife that he’s willing to go along with her new ’50s fixation, despite what he knows about the lives of Japanese Americans in the post-Internment decade. Mr. Wong doesn’t give as flashy a turn, but he subtly conveys his character’s slow acceptance of the new environment.
Addie Barnhart is hilariously chipper and controlling as Ellen, especially when explaining her retro lifestyle. When her world collapses toward the play’s end, she’s effectively heartbreaking. There’s a rich tension and promise of mystery behind Barnhart’s wifely supportive smiles and thoroughly domestic self-confidence that makes you want to return after the intermission. It pays off with the most fully developed character and personal drama in the play.
Landon Nagel’s Dean is a witty parody of a plastic pitchman, as well as the tortured soul underneath. Nagel is as smooth and natural an actor as you can find. Uncomplicated, direct and effective.
Adam Valentine comes out of nowhere to surprise us with his emotionally complicated Roger, Ryu’s factory foreman, who has an unexpected connection with Dean. This character is like a two-sided razor, cutting himself and those close to him, and Valentine makes him particularly sharp. In addition, he and Barnhart delightfully double as a pair of Katha’s ditsy publishing subordinates.
Major suspension of disbelief is required to buy into the idea that educated urbanites would take so quickly to the rigid roles they are required to play. Mr. Harrison does not always make a persuasive psychological case for the ease with which the newly renamed Kathy and Ryu settle into the new strictures of their lives.
Harrison’s premise doesn’t cover all the bases. For example, it’s never quite clear how this community, which apparently has its own factories and infrastructure, interacts economically with the outside world and still keeps its own rule. But his notions hold together well enough to sustain a couple of mostly humorous hours in the theater. It’s not that far-fetched, really. It’s just that the characters in Harrison’s world take period authenticity a good deal further. Since Ryu is of Asian descent, the other residents force themselves to stare at him in the supermarket, or maybe offer a few unsolicited comments about the quality of his English or drop a few lines about how much they, too, like Chinese food. Just like it would have been in 1955.
Maple and Vine cleverly intimates that all social intercourse, in the 1950s or today, is founded on our assumptions that people will stick to their defined roles. As Ellen points out in one of her cheery lectures, a certain level of artifice plays an ineradicable role in the lives of those suffering millions in the outside world too, as they busily idealize their lives for the consumption of their Facebook friends.
“It’s kind of funny to me when people get so suspicious of pretending,” she reflects. “I mean, don’t you think people pretend every day, without knowing it? We all imagine the life we’d like to have, and it takes a little pretend to get it.”
The play is as its best when it makes you really think about whether everything in the modern world represents progress. Is the bleed of work into personal time really a good thing? Don’t you wish you could call up a corporation and have a conversation with a real person? Wouldn’t you like to better know your neighbors? Your kids? When Maple and Vine hits those sensitive areas, it achieves real resonance. When it’s poking fun at the 1950′s lifestyles and prejudices — a very familiar motif — it feels slighter.
Despite of, or perhaps due to the peculiarities of the story line, Director Mark J. Lerman very cleverly holds the performances and all the production elements together with a subtle hand. The spare sets along with the combination of lighting and sound effects meld to create an eerie sense of a pressure cooker “reality” that became more effective as the truth of the character’s lives emerge.
Matthew Allar, both scenic and costume designer for this show followed the script’s mixture of Expressionism and Naturalism for his pallet. Act One was a negative space, empty save carried on benches and such backed by a drab grey wall. Most of the action seemed to occur outdoors and the backdrop suggested the cold grey industrial feel of Manhattan. It contrasted very sharply with the Better Homes and Gardens set for Act Two, with the Fabulous Fifties furniture. In Act Two the grey wall was opened up to display a beautifully painted Fabulous Fifties domestic scene one might find on the cover of a Life magazine of the era. Both backdrops served as an Expressionistic banner of the action played out before it.
Mr. Allar’s Costume Designs were entirely naturalistic and very nicely done. The gentlemen’s suits and hats and the women’s dresses all rang true.
Andrew Bonniwell’s sensitive lighting design added substantially to the time and mood shifts of the piece. Ian Watson’s Sound design ranged from mood evoking creepy to jarring voice overs that seemed out of place with the narrative.
A thought provoking piece, intelligently staged and performed. The Firehouse Theatre has become the venue for intelligent theatre. I for one, can subscribe to that.
Maple and Vine runs through May 8th at The Firehouse Theatre, you can scoop tickets here!
Quill Theatre’s production of “Assassins” examines the lives of people who committed the ultimate crime and assassinated an American President- or at least gave it their best shot. The musical, directed by Andrew Hamm, is set in a kaleidoscopic limbo, with people from different points in history interacting and conversing- and, yes, singing- with each other. [...]October 28, 2016
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