As a remedy for her 21st-century ennui and depression, beaten-down New Yorker Katha seeks refuge in another time – the year 1955 – and she persuades her reluctant plastic-surgeon spouse, Ryu, to escape with her. But Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine, directed by Igor Goldin at Cygnet Theatre’s Old Town space, is not a tale of time travel. Katha (Jo Anne Glover) and Ryu (Greg Watanabe) are instead whisked away to an unspecified gated community where everyone lives and behaves (at least at first) as if it is the “I Like Ike” Middle America of 1955. This fantasy land is maintained by the so-called Society of Dynamic Obsolescence (DSO), whose bubbly husband-and-wife figureheads Dean (Jordan Miller) and Ellen (Amanda Sitton) are, though they deny it, like a younger Ward and June Cleaver without the Beaver. It’s a contrived, spotty premise that works if you accept it as illusion. Maple and Vine’s overarching messages about the nature of authenticity and the irony of pretending are muddled with ongoing, overly busy commentaries on the WWII-era treatment of Japanese-Americans, intolerance of mixed-race couples (like Katha and Ryu) and homosexuality (Dean is definitely not Ward Cleaver.) It’s also unclear, given various and seemingly conflicting junctures in the play, whether Katha and Ryu are happier or unhappier in their new 1955 life. They ultimately appear to be so, though a stagy Katha nightmare near the end casts shadows of doubt.
An excellent five-member cast nevertheless navigates the script’s holes and U-turns. Miller and Sitton make the most out of characters who are not what they seem to be, and inhabit their “perfect” ‘50s couple roles without coming off as robotic. Supporting cast member Mike Nardelli distinguishes himself in two roles, as Katha’s cartoonishly wry gay co-worker Omar and the more complex and tormented Roger, Dean’s illicit lover in ‘50s Land.
Maple and Vine entertains most when it’s juxtaposing the societal icons of today with those of Ozzie & Harriet’s G-rated epoch of naivety. In the latter, for example, “Google” is quite literally a dirty word. As it should be, but that’s a commentary for another play at another time.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat