Brave old world | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Brave old world 

Weary moderns escape to a retro fantasy in Next Theatre's Maple and Vine

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I'm writing this on a borrowed laptop. When I opened the screen, a little box came up in the corner with the reminder, "SALES DEMO—OVERDUE." The calendar software inside this thing apparently noted an entry for an overlooked project and sent the message that somebody had better get on the stick.

That message wasn't even meant for me and it still stressed me out. Sure, there've been calendars—and therefore deadlines and notes saying, "Hurry up!"—for thousands of years. But it's unsettling to see the cool new machine adding its digital voice to the chorus of taskmasters. Isn't technology supposed to make life, I don't know, more pleasant?

The idea that innovation is synonymous with better living hasn't been working out for Katha, the heroine of Jordan Harrison's Maple and Vine, either. It hasn't made her executive position at Random House any less onerous or allowed her to spend more time with her plastic-surgeon husband, Ryu. It hasn't given her a non-narcotic way to keep her anxiety level down. And it certainly didn't keep her from miscarrying in the fifth month of her recent pregnancy. When we first meet her, Katha is laying in the dark, in bed, powering through various nature-sounds recordings, trying to find one that'll lull her to sleep. She isn't succeeding.

And then she meets Dean. Dressed in a three-piece, narrow-shouldered gray suit, a white shirt with monogrammed cuffs, a skinny tie, and a short-brimmed fedora, he asks directions and they get into a park-bench conversation.

Turns out he's got an executive position of his own, with a nonprofit called the Society for Dynamic Obsolescence. The members of SDO are every bit as sick of modernity as Katha is, and they've found a way not to take it anymore. They've established a gated community where it's always 1955—not quite literally, but near enough. As far as they're concerned, Eisenhower is still president, Dubonnet is the popular aperitif, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet is as close as TV comes to a reality show. They maintain an authenticity committee to improve the experience and the only cell phones are in the hands of leaders like Dean.

Inspired by Dean's spiel, Katha talks Ryu into trying it out with three well-formed questions: "Do you love your job?" she asks, and he answers, "No." "Do you love your life?" No again. "Do you love me?" "Yes," and the matter is decided. Before too long, Katha (now Kathy) is going before the authenticity committee to ask her fellow SDOers to treat her and Ryu with just a little more contempt, since, after all, his Japanese heritage makes them a mixed-race couple.

If the premise seems implausible, just consider the aggressively idyllic Disney development, Celebration, Florida, or the Hasidic village of New Square, New York, where the spiritual year is always circa 1755. The true implausibility isn't in Harrison's conceit but in the supposition, shared longingly and somehow nostalgically by so many of us, that a kind of utopian stasis exists—a clear, comprehensible, and eternal condition where everyone understands his role in the social order and submits to it happily, knowing that structure brings fulfillment. It's that implausibility that Harrison explores here. And, to his credit, he doesn't treat it as foolishness. Maple and Vine is funny but not condescending or smug. Harrison seems to know that the fantasy of a way to live is the clever means by which we live without a way to live.

Damon Kiely's production for Next Theatre wasn't quite ready for outside eyes when I saw it on opening night. Dropped lines, moments of confusion, and offstage noise intruded into that particular fantasy, though I assume the glitches have been worked out by now. And much of what wasn't a glitch was very fine. Tall and lean with a deep, honeyed voice like the announcer on some 1950s game show, Lawrence Grimm makes a perfect Dean, just as Molly Glynn's air of humorous confidence makes her a perfect Katha, suggesting the resourcefulness at the heart of a character who only appears to be in retreat.

Peter Sipla has a big problem as Katha's husband, Ryu, though: no real role. Harrison has written him as a sort of Gumby figure, infinitely malleable. His obsequiousness is such that you wonder how he ever gathered the nerve and sheer stamina it takes to be a plastic surgeon. Why doesn't he put up more of a fight over joining a group he initially calls a cult? And why doesn't he decamp when he gets to the SDO community and learns that his race is a stigma and his education no use to him at all? Sipla doesn't answer these questions any better than Harrison does.

Next artistic director Jenny Avery does better as Dean's wife, Ellen, starting out as a caricature of false graciousness but deepening interestingly as the play goes on and her circumstances sour. All this in spite of the ugly dresses costume designer Alex Meadows has put her in. Similarly, Paul D'Addario is a smart cartoon in one of his two roles, something distinctly stronger and more complex in the other.

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