Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
January 31, 2014
Let’s say you’re psychologically over-stressed and technologically over-stimulated. Maybe your hyper-connectivity is making you feel disconnected. You could start up a relationship with your Siri-like operating system, as in the Spike Jonze film, “Her.” Or you could escape to another era entirely, as Jordan Harrison suggests in his 2011 fantasy, “Maple and Vine,” now having its San Diego premiere at Cygnet Theatre.
Set in a virtual world, both stories focus on alienation and authentic interaction. In both, the central characters embrace an imaginary life. The movie protagonist learns that human interactions trump electronic ones after all. In the play, life with fewer options and distractions may be confining, but it’s also liberating.
We first meet Katha, still reeling from the loss of a baby six months ago, as she impulsively walks out on her high-power, high-anxiety job. Almost immediately, she meets a guy from the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, who invites her to join their gated Midwestern community, where it’s perpetually 1955.
Katha’s Japanese-American husband, Ryu , a disenchanted plastic surgeon, reluctantly and implausibly agrees to give it a six-month trial. She becomes a cheerful, aproned housewife, and he gets a menial factory job putting boxes together. The squeaky-clean world around them is filled with white bread and white gloves, cheese puffs and Dubonnet . Everything is proper and in its place. The gender roles and rules are clear, the streets are spotless, the people awash in chirpy bonhomie. And then the soul-crushing cracks begin to show. In any obsession with ideological purity, hypocrisy is inevitable.
Nothing much happens, rather slowly, in Act I, as Katha and Ryu’s discussions alternate with a direct-to-the-audience sales pitch from a Stepford -like couple who tirelessly promote the merits of their creative anachronism.
It’s an intriguing premise, especially in the ways that this well-intentioned but misguided recidivism still manages to clash periodically with modern society. The predictable race and gender constraints of the 1950s, combined with titillating revelations in Act II, almost redeem the play. But despite some snappy dialogue, it takes too long to get where it’s going, the dream sequences feel gratuitous, we don’t really care about any of the characters, and there’s a serious dearth of insight at the end. Like the movie, “Her,” it’s disturbing but unsatisfying. Both parallel universes are founded on fantasy and a considerable suspension of disbelief – in participants and spectators alike.
Under the aegis of guest director Igor Goldin , the cast is excellent, the costumes are spot-on, but the pace is pokey, even with a revolving set on Cygnet’s new turntable. Maybe it’s to accommodate the rapid-fire costume transformations. Maybe the ‘50s just moved at a more leisurely tempo. Or perhaps the play is as shallow as this faux ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ world.
“Maple and Vine” runs through February 16 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
©2014 PAT LAUNER