Updated: Jun 20
"...Living In Ozzie and Harriet’s Closet"
Had enough with the 24-hour news cycles, the email scams, the bottomed out job, traffic jams and all the other frustrations of the modern world? Wouldn’t it be great if you could just give it all up and go back to a simpler, seemingly happier time?
That’s the opportunity handed to married couple Katha (Darri Kristin) and Ryu (Lee Samuel Tanng) in Jordan Harrison’s dark Stepford comedy, “Maple and Vine,” now playing in Fullerton through March 31st.
Going off the grid does sound tempting, even necessary at times. However, going as far off as 1955 America - as these characters do, may sound more like a nightmare. Craftily performed by the able ensemble players at STAGEStheatre under the direction of Sarah Ripper, ”Maple and Vine” takes the neurotic, interracial pair, Katha and Ryu, both souring on the many irritations of contemporay life, and places them into a carefully stage-managed “Potemkin” village of America’s fifties past.
Though it implies time-travel, “Maple and Vine” isn’t a sci-fi outing. Better to consider it a psy-fi adventure, packed with ideas about the present and the past, about what we think ails us and what we imagine might be the tonic.
As the play unfolds, Katha and Ryu have become clichéd to their 21st-century lives and are unhappy. Both have stressful jobs: Katha works in publishing and Ryu is a plastic surgeon. With little time to relax, they also have attachment issues with their phones, insomnia and gloomy dispositions. Happiness is “not having enough time to wonder if you’re happy,” Katha laments.
The couple is also mourning a miscarriage that occurred six months earlier—the catalyst for Katha’s current depression. Finally fed up, she quits her job, to the shock of her snarky underlings, Jenna (Laura Lejuwaan) and Omar (Cristian Rincon). Later that day, she encounters an apple-cheeked, charismatic man in Madison Square Park—Dean, dressed in ‘50s vintage attire. Dean (Jason Cook) is an odd but charming colporteur for the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence (SDO), and gives Katha and her husband a sales pitch about a tempting alternative, an authentically recreated 1950s “Pleasantville-like” community.
It’s a closed-community in the Midwest where people live as if the past six decades had never happened. It’s a place where there are no cell phones, no lattes, where neighbors know each other, the milkman delivers bottles of milk each morning, and Twitter is literally just for the birds. Dean and his imperiously unhappy wife, Ellen (also played by Laura Lejuwaan), moved into the past, not because they found contemporary life to be too difficult, but because it was too easy.
“Modern-day conveniences,” Dean claims, “were ruining our lives.”
So Katha, dissatisfied with all the technology-laden rhythms of her and her husband’s Manhattan lifestyle, persuades her busy, high-profile mate, who happens to be Japanese American, to move to the SDO for a six-month trial run, but are unprepared for the complications they begin to face as an interracial couple in a community governed by post World War attitudes. Her practical and slightly more divided husband, Ryu, is resistant to this drastic change at first, but finds himself drawn fully into a world embracing second-class citizenship, even as he’s repulsed by it.
Dean tells Ryu that for authenticity’s sake, he and Katha will have to live in a more liberal, isolated part of the SDO, and Ryu will have more limited job options, despite his medical degree. Soon, Katha and Ryu are ensconced in a delightful ranch house and are quite surprised by what their new neighbors - and they themselves - are willing to sacrifice for happiness. She embraces homemaking and housewifery. They forsake cell phones and sushi for cigarettes and Tupperware parties. He gets an entry-level job at a factory assembling boxes.
It’s really a far-fetched premise, having two successful, contemporary 30-somethings jump ship for America’s most infamously locked-down decade. What about race, gender, sexual identity — all those things which are just starting to push against repression? Fear not, they can’t be ignored.
Lurking in the shadows is a hunky Nick Jonas-like wild card named Roger (Cristian Rincon), the slightly abusive gay warehouse supervisor in the box-assembly plant. When Ryu sees Dean and Roger in a compromising position, the play adds a telling wrinkle to the fabric of this ersatz community. But Director Ripper packs just enough humor and provocation into the mix to keep you intrigued.
Taking the concept on its own terms, purely as a slim what-if fantasy, “Maple and Vine” is thought-tickling entertainment and witty, sexy “cosplay” nostalgia, which doubles as an elaborate mating game for young post-millennial marrieds hitting their midlife crises a bit early. Contemporary life can be complicated and problematic—true, and a superficial and fanciful Ozzie and Harriet remedy like this just might fill the bill—at least for two hours.
Smart, period-perfect costumes are by Sara Bowie; Sound Design is Barney Evans, Light Design and Set is by Jon Gaw. The Stage Manager is Eddie Valdez who also operates light and sound, and Projections are by Paisha Bleich.
“Maple and Vine” continues through March 31st at STAGEStheatre, now celebrating their 27th year, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm. Highly Recommended! Tickets may be purchased at https://stagesoc.org/