Fall Arts: Playwright Jordan Harrison's Simple Plan: "Maple and Vine"

Does Jordan Harrison despise the modern world? The 34-year-old playwright seemed at ease on a recent Tuesday in Madison Square Park, reclining in the shade and licking Shake Shack custard as he checked his smartphone for news of his crashed Mac. But might he be even happier in a simpler, slower era? Before Shake Shacks and iPhones and ill laptops? The premise of a trip back in time animates his new play Maple and Vine, which starts at Playwrights Horizons on November 19, directed by Anne Kauffman.

The piece begins on a parallel afternoon in the same park when Katha, a beyond-burnt-out nonfiction editor, meets Dean, "a strange, clean man" in a natty suit. Dean tells her about the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, a Midwestern community in which residents live as though it's perpetually 1955. Intrigued, Katha convinces her Japanese-American doctor husband to move to a place where they can "live off the land and drink ice cream sodas and pretend there's no Internet."

A critic's pick at last summer's Humana Festival, Maple and Vine asks audiences to contemplate a decade when we were less turned on and more attuned—to our neighbors, to our families, to ourselves. Harrison says he hit on the '50s because of the appeal of the period's less permeable social categories. "Men knew they had to be men," says Harrison. "Women knew they had to be women. We knew that America was good and Communism was bad."

Of course, Harrison acknowledges a dark side to this surface glamour of "snazzy suits and cocktails." In an e-mail a day after the interview, he wrote, "Obviously a Japanese-American plastic surgeon or an out homosexual"—like Harrison himself—"would have plenty of reasons to run far, far away from a '50s society." But that period allowed him "to explore the idea of people being happier—or at least, more human—with greater boundaries and limitations."

Maple and Vine had an unusual genesis. Several years ago, Kauffman, a member of the documentary collective the Civilians, approached Harrison with the idea of creating a play from interviews that company members had conducted with, in Harrison's words, "people who retreat from the modern world—the Amish, Civil War re-enactors, Christian cults, cloistered nuns, people's moms who can't work a CD player." Harrison edited the interviews and interpolated them with a science-fiction story about a Mars-bound family.

Kauffman hated it. Harrison asked for one more chance. Taking another crack at the theme, he drew on his "golden childhood" on an island near Seattle, a place with "one movie screen and one grocery store." He also took inspiration from a recent period in which he and his longtime partner were so plugged in (to careers, to computers) and so disconnected from each other that even the most innocuous question could trigger a crying jag, a scenario he re-creates in the play.

Perhaps it's that personal touch, that "direct self-plagiarism," that renders the play so evocative. What ought to be a goof becomes genuinely poignant, yearning. Harrison never thought of decamping to the '50s, but he and his partner did talk of ditching their jobs and starting a bookstore/taco stand in a warehouse upstate. "I understand what the characters were after when they moved," Harrison says. But audiences who attend Maple and Vine should be glad he stayed put.

"Maple and Vine," by Jordan Harrison, Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, playwrightshorizons.org

 
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