Sometimes a lighthearted comic parable isn't as lighthearted as it seems.
Or is it? That's at issue in Jordan Harrison's very clever, continually surprising and ultimately disturbing "Maple and Vine," with which City Theatre opens its 2012-13 season. Just how silly is it? How dark? And why is the audience split, facing itself across the acting area?
Responses may be as individual as politics, which can't be far from anyone's mind right now. "Maple and Vine" is inevitably political, given our present national debate about the balance between future and past.
What debate, you say? Exactly! Though unacknowledged, it's right there under the surface, the question of whether we're going to will ourselves into some fantasy of a happy past or grit our teeth and face up to the challenges of the here, now and future. Perhaps that split audience is itself a metaphor.
Mr. Harrison's play begins with an unhappy Katha, successful at work, married to a doctor she loves, but continually on edge. She meets Dean, a man with an answer -- an alternative to the noisy, stressful present -- a whole community where the year is always 1955.
It's certainly seductive, this world without cell phones and the other ills that contemporary life is heir to. It's based on the popular caricature of the bland, conformist '50s, of "I like Ike," cuisine without spicy foreign intrusions and just three choices on TV (say, "Ozzie and Harriet," "I Love Lucy" or "Father Knows Best"). But Katha persuades hubby Ryu, who isn't that enamored of his own life as a plastic surgeon, and they take that backward plunge.
Dean and wife Ellen are there to serve as their guides. Katha blossoms as a contented homemaker, trying out new recipes based on canned soup and greeting Ryu as he comes home from another hard day on the assembly line. Inevitably, Katha is invited to join the local watchdog committee, because maintaining ideological purity is a constant concern in a community determined to exist outside of time.
Soon enough it turns out that 1955 (memories of 2012 aside) doesn't itself exist outside of time. What about race or sex? They were also around in 1955 (remember "Peyton Place"?), however cardboard we may assume our predecessors' lives must have been.
Enough said. The play stirs up plenty to talk about, even leaving the presidential race out of it. Playwright Harrison can't even have had that in mind, writing the play a couple of years ago. It certainly wasn't in my mind when I first saw "Maple and Vine" a year and a half ago at the Humana Festival.
However, the laughter turns sour soon enough. Under the surface comedy, these shifting borders between utopia and dystopia are what the play is really about.
It's uncertain how that relates to that split audience, one-third of it on one side, two-thirds on the other, with a long, alley-shaped acting area in between. City has used this configuration only once before, in 1999, for "The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde." Presumably the effect is as it was then, that the other audience acts as our mirror, making our awareness of ourselves part of the play.
It's more worrisome what it does to the actors, having to negotiate a huge, lateral acting area while heightening performances so they can register in both directions. It disperses the effect of this sharp, crisp play -- bloats it, even.
However, the details of Narelle Sisson's scenic design can be witty, starting with the blueprint-like ground plan, which the furniture ignores in the discordance of Act 1 and obeys in the rigidity of 1955. And the extensions of the stage surface, curling up the side walls like storybook parchment, suggest the play's fairytale dimension, the place where Grimm meets grim.
Nelson Lee's Ryu is just right, the bewildered straight man going along with the wife he loves. Robin Abramson's Katha is more complex. She is excessively childish to start (thumb-sucking?), but once arrived in 1955, she blossoms into a creepily cheery Donna Reed, just a couple of steps from Stepford.
As Dean, Greg McFadden is the perfect pitchman, reassuring and reasonable, setting us up for surprises to come. Caralyn Kozlowski's Ellen makes an intriguing transition from brittle, Pat Nixon-like android to a woman with real pain. And her secondary role is a small comic bauble, like the matching secondary role of Ross Bescher, whose main role is as a surly factory supervisor providing a glimpse of the complexity of utopia.
That thumb-sucking suggests director Kip Fagan's irresolute blend of broad comedy and Orwellian implication, but perhaps it's really intentionally unsettling. Maybe the opening night audience's determination to laugh at the unfunny is just what the play invites, and criticizes. Maybe what makes me uncomfortable (like that bloated stage) is exactly the creepy undercurrent beneath the benign surface of that title, "Maple and Vine."
Wait a minute: "Vine"? The vine that binds? It gives one to think.
And it couldn't be more about 2012 if it tried.theaterreviews
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: is at 412-216-1944.