Over time, decades become generalizations. If you actually lived through 10 years’ worth of the 1950s, as I did in my childhood, you’re likely to perceive them as a vast, complex jumble of possibilities, offering multiple exceptions to every standard assumption. But if you call those years the Eisenhower Era, and smooth them down into one easily graspable image, you turn them into something utterly unlike their actuality—and much closer to the way ’50s TV commercials invited people then to imagine their lives. If you’re too young to have been there, measure the distance between today’s TV commercials and your own present-day life, and you’ll see what I mean.
The gap between ’50s reality and its oversimplification partly causes the troubles afflicting Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine (Playwrights Horizons), a quirkily amusing little play that probably should have been either shortened into a satirical sketch or enriched to become something much more substantive. Stretched over a two-act evening, it feels thin; its modest virtues pale, while its developments make disbelief progressively harder to suspend.
Harrison has conceived a sort of nonmusical Brigadoon. Instead of an imaginary Scots village that stays pure by spending only one day in each century, he has his stressed-out duo from the contemporary world, a married couple, escape the pressures of the Internet Age by entering a gated community where everything is idyllic 1950s suburban perfection, operated by a faintly sinister organization called the Society for Dynamic Obsolescence. Naturally, Katha (Marin Ireland) and Ryu (Peter Kim) throw over their fast-lane 21st-century existence—as a cutting-edge publishing exec and a high-priced plastic surgeon, respectively—only to discover that ’50s suburbia isn’t as perfectly idyllic as it might look at first glance.
The era’s troubling aspects weigh uncomfortably at times on Ryu and Katha—she has to become Kathy, for one thing; apparently variant names were a ’50s suburban no-no—and turns out to weigh even more grievously on the couple who initially talked them into entering the community, Dean (Trent Dawson) and Ellen (Jeanine Serralles). When Harrison sticks to light, cartoony fun-poking—the ’50s notion of a dipping sauce for canapes being ketchup plus mayonnaise, stuff like that—Maple and Vine speeds by harmlessly enough.
But Harrison’s structure doesn’t sustain, in part, because he’s so oversimplified the ’50s that you can’t see why his characters would stay there for more than a campy holiday weekend. That puzzle turns out to mirror, as he goes on, the shallowness with which he has conceived his characters themselves and their 21st-century life. Even the Brigadoon-ish concept of a ’50s suburb thriving in pristine isolation today ultimately doesn’t wash. As the improbabilities mount, you start wondering who could profit from such a place, how it survives economically, and most of all, how it can possibly affect anyone’s well-being when everyone involved knows that it’s only a pretense. It’s as if the employees of Colonial Williamsburg all suddenly went delusional.
Of course, people, even highly educated people, can and often will make insanely unreasonable choices. Harrison’s problem stems from inviting us to believe that they would do so permanently as an alternative to reality. By the time “Kathy” has stood up in the town’s “Authenticity Committee” to complain that the neighbors aren’t showing her ethnically mixed marriage sufficiently overt expressions of prejudice, Harrison’s already tenuous joke has been stretched to the snapping point. And he then tries to top it by asking us to imagine openly gay people unhappy enough with their current lives to wish themselves back into a time and place when gay could only equal clandestine.
Director Anne Kauffman struggles, only half successfully, to glide across the gaps Harrison has left in his metaphor. She’s not helped by Alexander Dodge’s over-busy set, a constantly moving jumble of open cubes, but has a great asset in Ilona Somogyi’s apt, audacious costumes, smartly catching the ick of both eras. Ireland, always impressive, and Kim convey contemporary burnout with touching febrility; Dawson and Pedro Pascal catch the tone of ’50s angst precisely. Only Serralles tends to play the joke too self-consciously. But perhaps she’s stuck because her author has done exactly the same thing.