November 30, 2011

"Maple and Vine" Needs Some Pruning

photo by Joan Marcus
Everybody knows that theater is a collaborative art, with its elements—the acting, the directing, the design, lighting and the play itself—all leaning on one another.  But we sometimes forget how a misstep by just one of them can tip the whole ship. 

I was reminded of that when I saw Maple and Vine, the new play by Jordan Harrison that is now in previews at Playwrights Horizons.  Its ship tipper is an unnecessarily clunky set but the ship itself was already wobbly.

This is the first play by Harrison that I’ve seen but from everything I’ve read (click here to see a profile in his alumni magazine from Stanford University) Harrison likes to set his characters in worlds that are slightly askew from reality. This time out he’s come up with the idea of a modern-day Arcadia where people fed up with our fast-paced, hyper-socially connected world retreat into a separate community that has chosen to live every day as though it were 1955. 

That means bouncy petticoats for the women, boxy suits for the men, high balls for everyone and evenings spent playing charades instead of watching TV or surfing the Internet. But I hope it’s no spoiler to say that life there turns out to be less than ideal.

Maple and Vine seems to have been a big hit at last spring’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, which takes place every year in Louisville.  But I’ve got to say it’s hard to tell why based on this production.

I’ll admit that there are things to admire in Harrison’s work. His willingness to explore unconventional worlds is a welcomed change from the usual navel gazing.  His tendency to include parts for non-white actors is admirable.  And, like so many playwrights who grew up in the Seinfeld era, he’s a master of droll dialog. 

But writing a play that juxtaposes life today against that in the ‘50s isn’t a new idea. The movies "Pleasantville" and "Far From Heaven" took that on a decade ago. And TV’s "Mad Men" has been scratching a similar itch for the last four years.

Of course it would be fine for Harrison to have his say on this period if he had something distinctive to add to the conversation. But after he sets up his version of the situation, he doesn’t seem sure of what do do with it.

I’m willing to let a playwright take me to a strange place. I've ventured into some weird territory with Albee, Durang and Rapp, all of whom have no doubt inspired Harrison. But Maple and Vine spoils the mood by breaking its own rules: community residents aren’t supposed to do anything that happens after 1955 and yet one character conspicuously reads “Peyton Place,” which didn’t come out until 1956.

And if you think that’s nitpicky, it's even more dislocating when a guy who makes boxes on a production line in 1955 is able to afford a split level home, complete with upscale mid-century furniture and a bar stocked with premium labels. 

What’s worse, however, is that Harrison has succumbed to a naive romanticizing of the past.  The play acknowledges that McCarthyism, overt racism and sexism, and socially-sanctioned discrimination against gays existed in the ‘50s but it conjectures that oppression is a good thing because it gives people something to struggle against.

Hmmmm. Well, tell that to the thousands of people in that era who were hounded out of their jobs on charges of being communist or gay and to the millions who had to take jobs beneath their ability because their skins were dark or they were born female. 

The actors do what they can with the roles. Trent Dawson and Jeanine Serralles are appropriately faux-upbeat as the leaders of the community and Pedro Pascal is a brooding malcontent who has secret reasons for his unhappiness. Both Pascal and Serralles do double duty in a couple of minor roles as well.

Playing the central couple who decide to join the society after suffering a tragedy are Marin Ireland and Peter Kim. As always, it’s a treat to see what spin Ireland will put on a line reading.  And Kim, who originated the role of the Asian-American husband in Louisville last spring, is clearly delighted to have the part since meaty roles for Asian actors are almost as rare as meat dishes at a vegan picnic.

But then there’s the set.  I don’t know if the blame for it rests with Harrison, director Anne Kauffman or set designer Alexander Dodge. There are over 30 scenes in Maple and Vine and Dodge vainly tries to recreate each one in naturalistic detail. 

That means dark-clad stagehands are constantly dragging on sets or clearing the way for others to pop up through the trap door in the stage floor. In their desperation to keep the action flowing, some of the grips started moving things before scenes were finished at the performance my best friend Phil and I attended. 

Of course, the scene changes may get smoother but that doesn’t mean that the scenery will be better.  Or, alas, that the show will be either.

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