Past imperfect in ACT’s Maple and Vine

Maple 1
Dubonnet on the rocks, please. Dean (Jamison Jones, left), Ellen (Julia Coffey, center) and Katha (Emily Donahoe) enjoy the best part of the 1950s – the cocktails – in the American Conservatory Theater production of Maple and Vine by Jordan Harrison. Below: Donahoe as Katha and Nelson Lee as Ryu, her husband, interact 21st-century style. Photos by Kevin Berne

Dwelling on the past – or in it – as so many human beings come to find, causes nothing but frustration and disappointment. The same is true for Jordan Harrison’s play Maple and Vine now at American Conservatory Theater.

Harrison is the talented young writer last seen in the Bay Area with Finn in the Underworld at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2005 and Act a Lady at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in 2009. His Maple and Vine premiered about a year ago at the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville, Ky., and it’s a more interesting play than it is a good one. The play purports to be about the quality of life now compared to the 1950s, but it really ends up being about how far people are willing to go to save a relationship.

Act 1 is pretty much all set up. Katha (Emily Donahoe) and Ryu (Nelson Lee), a frustrated 21st-century couple, still reeling from a miscarriage some months before, struggles to remain connected and loving in spite of the emotional and professional pressures conspiring to split them apart on the high-stakes Isle of Manhattan. By chance one afternoon, Katha meats a Dapper Dan named Dean (Jamison Jones) in the big city for the day who tells her all about how he lives in a Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, which is essentially a gated community where it’s always 1955.

What frustrated modern wouldn’t want to give up all the gizmos, spurn the Internet, step off the high-speed treadmill and bask in the glories of a time when Disneyland was brand new, the Commies were the baddest guys on the block and cocktails were king? Oh, yes, and racism was rampant, feminism nearly non-existent and American Imperialism at its height?

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Once we get Katha and Ryu into the SDO, you can sense Harrison warming up to really dive and have fun with this enjoyable premise. But early in Act 2, the promise of the premise takes a nose dive and never recovers. Issues of racism flare up when Ryu, a plastic surgeon in his former life, takes up work at a box factory and is quickly compared to Kamikaze pilots by his manager (Danny Bernardy). And lots of juicy details emerge about maintaining a life of pretend – how engineers have to re-create things like mimeograph machines, how committees have to monitor the “authenticity” of the community, lest anyone get caught “disrupting” (the worst thing you can do – bringing in the 21st century – because it’s a buzz kill for everybody).

The scene that made me recoil from the play involves a character instructing other characters how to be more racist because their nice neighborliness isn’t nearly authentic enough. My strong reaction made me think this would make for a very interesting, if difficult play. You’d guess that many people who choose to live in perpetual 1955 would be doing so because they have a hard time being racist in 2012. But that’s not really explored here.

Rather, Harrison goes for the pulp. The move to 1955 definitely has an effect on Katha and Ryu and their gender roles, and it seems their retreat from modern life was a good move for their marriage, though the thought of having a child in 1955 while it’s 2012 on the other side of the gate is terrifying (and also not satisfactorily explored). For community leaders Dean and his wife, Ellen (Julia Coffey), life is complicated by forbidden desires, but then too much of Act 2 centers on those desires. It turns out that they arrived in 1955 to salvage relationships as well. Kinky, right?

The ending is just plain weak and leaves far too much unexplored. It’s a provocative idea to explore the notion of living a pretend life that becomes real, but Harrison makes the leap and falls flat.

That said, director Mark Rucker’s production is highly enjoyable within the limits of Harrison’s script. Set designer Ralph Funicello has created the most beautiful New York City backdrop I’ve ever seen (and it’s gorgeously lit by Russell H. Champa), and the slide-on, slide-off set pieces are highly efficient at creating not just a sense of place but a tone as well. Once in the SDO, the back of the stage is dominated by – what else? – a white picket fence. It’s easy to imagine that one of the main reasons (other than the cocktails) for going back to the ’50s is for the clothes, and Alex Jaeger’s creations, especially for the women, are glorious.

The performances are all strong, especially from the crisp and crafty Jones and Coffey as the seemingly picture-perfect ’50s couple, but the play can’t help but let them down. It would be so interesting to see Harrison close the loop he started. If modern folk spend time in a self-inflicted and laboriously maintained time warp, what happens to them when they come back to the real world? There are interesting justifications in the play about why the ’50s are more desirable because life then was more difficult and we human beings thrive on challenge. Today, everything comes too easily and we’re shut off from everyone by our electronic devices.

The 1950s are a lot of fun – the kitsch factor is irresistible – but if people really wanted to be challenged, why not take them back to the depths of the Great Depression in 1932. The show wouldn’t be nearly as fun to watch, but talk about life not being too easy!

Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine continues through April 22 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$95 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

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