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Theater review: 'Maple and Vine' at American Conservatory Theater

April 6, 2012 |  3:45 pm

Maple and vine 1
A sparklingly original idea can be both a godsend and a dead end for a playwright, as Jordan Harrison’s “Maple and Vine” serves (entertainingly, for a good while) to remind.

The clever conceit of this play, which is receiving its West Coast premiere at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, is that an alternative to the modern 24/7 rat race has been established by a cult group known as the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence. Sick of being enslaved to their smartphones, this community of burned-out professionals and nostalgia freaks collectively turns back the clock to the 1950s, reenacting life as it was lived in the good old Eisenhower days, before the Internet and political correctness ruined everything.

On the surface, Katha (an appealing if not entirely convincing Emily Donahoe) and Ryu (a charmingly effective Nelson Lee) would seem to have all that a 21st century Manhattan couple could hope for. Both have enviable jobs — she’s a publishing executive, he’s a plastic surgeon. They have a companionable relationship and a sleek apartment in the city. But Katha can’t seem to regain her footing after suffering a miscarriage several months earlier. She no longer wants to have sex, and the urban fight has gone out of her.

Maple and vine 2After impulsively quitting her job, Katha meets Dean (Jamison Jones), who introduces her to this parallel universe in which whole grain bread, HBO and lattes are out and salt, cigarettes and Sanka are in. Life may be less convenient, he tells her, but it’s a good deal more neighborly. The virtual world is a lonely one.

Katha is convinced that relocating to 1955 is just what Ryu and she need to get back on track. And though creeped out by the prospect, he consents to a six-month trial run that will reveal just what has been lost and gained over the last half century or so.

Under Mark Rucker’s fizzy direction, the production maximizes the humor inherent in the farfetched setup. The comedy can get broad, especially in the sketchy workplace scenes, but the staging is consistently lively.

Dean and his wife, Ellen (Julia Coffey) — styled as the ideal wife and homemaker from the days of black-and-white television — guide Katha and Ryu’s transformation as though they were leading a seminar for new recruits. The rules that are issued (no digital timepieces or Velcro!) make for a hilarious running gag, especially when a precious bottle of Grey Goose vodka has to be discarded.

The play is a designer’s dream, and scenic designer Ralph Funicello and costume designer Alex Jaeger rise magnificently to the challenge of re-creating a colorful “Ozzie and Harriet” version of this bygone era. Even the sky has been idealized — the kind of blue that exists only in postcards and repeats of “The Brady Bunch.”

Unfortunately, Harrison loses his way in the play’s second half, when the focus shifts away from Katha and Ryu to the problematic zeitgeist. Racial bigotry, sexism and homophobia all get to rear their ugly heads in a series of plot turns that become increasingly difficult to credit.

It’s hard enough to believe that a plastic surgeon would be willing to give up his profession for the chance to assemble boxes in a factory. But it becomes completely implausible that Ryu, a Japanese American, and Katha, who changes her name to Kathy to fit the times, would put up with all the prejudice they encounter over their interracial marriage. Or that Kathy would be so desperate to fit in that she would actually start encouraging it.

A punchy subplot involving Dean’s homosexual affair with Roger (Danny Bernardy), Ryu’s bigoted boss, has a ludicrously contrived back story that makes the play even harder to go along with as it reaches its ambivalent conclusion. A writer can invent anything except human nature. “Maple and Vine” entices us on a wacky voyage, then leaves us — and its characters — stranded on the shoals of facile satire.


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-- Charles McNulty, reporting from San Francisco\charlesmcnulty

Photos: (Left to right) Jamison Jones, Julia Coffey and Emily Donahoe. Lower: Donahoe and Nelson Lee. Credit: Kevin Berne