The Milkman Cometh

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Posts, Theater.


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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