What people seem to ignore—or shrug off—in our mad for Mad Men times is that the past was not necessarily simpler. Under the lacquer of nostalgia lies a time of community, when grocery store clerks who sold you goods on credit existed in place of self-check-out aisles and neighbors greeted new arrivals with casseroles. But that same community is also the one that spread gossip animatedly and viciously, where women had one slot in life and men who weren’t manly were jokes.
That disconnect between our perceptions of what the past was like (no Internet? No problem!) and its actual, prickly reality is explored in Maple and Vine, the uproarious, problematic new comedy by Jordan Harrison at Playwrights Horizons. Still reeling from a miscarriage three months ago, young couple Katha (Marin Ireland, slightly out of place in a comedy) and Asian-American Ryu (Peter Kim) indulge themselves in a world of 1950s re-enactors, led by the charismatic Dean (Trent Dawson). In Dean’s world, the United States has been recreated in microcosm within a gated community, complete with Mason-Dixon line. Dean and his wife, Ellen (Jeanine Serralles, absolutely perfect) are always on the lookout for new types to make the experience more authentic, their particular watchword. Katha briefly contemplates eschewing foundation garments for the berets and poetry of the beatnik, but Ellen quickly sets her straight: what Katha really is wants “some repression, some rich subtext.” Before you can say, “Honey, I’m home,” Katha and Ryu have traded in a life of disconnected technology for one of crinoline and martinis.
Ireland, best known for darker dramatic turns in plays like Blasted and reasons to be pretty, doesn’t have quite the same balance as Dawson and Serralles when it comes to walking the fine line of Harrison’s play between satire and sincerity; she’s a little too strident to nail the comedy, but she succeeds through sheer force of talent. Former soap star Dawson is a natural fit for the material, as are Pedro Pascal as a gruff man’s man and Serralles as the angular, perfectly put together Ellen, whose every movement is carefully calculated and period perfect.
Director Anne Kauffman does fine work with the performers; where she falters is the play’s pacing. The set changes are so elaborate (the busy set design is from Alexander Dodge) that she’s forced to stage some scenes in the aisles of the theater just to keep momentum. And nothing she or Ireland do can mitigate the abrupt insertion of monologues directed at the audience by Katha in the second act, in which she relates her dreams in the third person; likewise, the happy ending that Harrison has supplied skirts the issue of whether or not the past was truly easier by allowing the characters to be happier play-acting in a perpetual 1955.
But Kauffman, Harrison and company do so much right that these are mere cavils. Harrison takes material that Todd Haynes seemed to have done to perfection and spins it out in new, mesmerizing ways—particularly in the community’s treatment of Japanese-American Ryu, who is greeted with a kind of reverse racism after the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. As Ryu and Katha—rechristened Kathy by Ellen—slip deeper into their roles, they find solace in the limitations of the time period they’ve hand picked for themselves, even as they gradually morph from the couple they were into a 1950s equivalent, one in which Ryu can demand unironically why Kathy isn’t wearing her apron when he walks in the door after work and Kathy can delightedly spend an entire day making chicken stock.
Only gradually do they realize what Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has been telling us for four seasons now: Choices during the mid-20th-century may have been fewer, but the ones that existed were all the more potent for it.
Maple and Vine
Through Dec. 23, Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.),www.playwrightshorizons.org; $70.
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