At the start of Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine, now playing at the beleaguered Spooky Action Theater in a handsome production deftly directed by Stevie Zimmerman, we discover a young married couple, Katha and Ryu, under the covers in a double bed — where they have been lying in wait since before the audience was let in. As Katha and Ryu awaken and play their first scene, we cannot help but warm to them. They come across as two really nice people who belong together like…well, like two lovers in bed. Indeed the chemistry between Em Whitworth as Katha and Jacob Yeh as Ryu is so convincing and appealing they could lead us by the heart into just about any storyline and we would not only follow gladly, we would care what becomes of them.
We learn that though Katha, a publishing executive, and Ryu, a plastic surgeon, are happy with each other, they are unhappy with their 21st-century lives. Job life, online life, it’s all empty and numbing, and Set Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson has provided a dull gray back wall that visually boxes them in. Then these two wonderfully performed characters bond us to them all the more when we learn they share a sorrow: Katha miscarried six months ago. Ryu would like to try again but Katha is not ready to.
What happens next completely shifts gears. To the tune of dated elevator music (the apt sound design is by Brandon Cook), a couple of caricature characters named Ellen and Dean show up proselytizing about the glories of life in a cultish community that is stuck back in the 1950s — the simpler “good old days” when women were dutiful housewives and men ruled the roost. A saccharine Amanda Tudor as Ellen wears a ’50s frock with a cone-shaped skirt, and a suave and a smarmy Nick DePinto as Dean wears something like a zoot suit (the show’s snazzy costumes are by Alison Samantha Johnson). Together they make their pitch — directly to the audience, as though we are their target recruits — and DePinto does know how to work a crowd. Eventually, after a muchness of exposition, Ellen and Dean persuade Katha and Ryu to join them in what turns out to be pre-women’s-lib land. That’s not what they call it, though. It’s the Society for Dynamic Obsolescence.
This plot turn made no sense; for the life of me, I didn’t understand why Katha and Ryu, whom I thought I knew, and who I thought knew each other, would go along. But go along they did; and as they did, the gray walls of their modern bedroom parted to reveal their shiny new 1950s kitchen in garish color at the corner of Maple and Vine.
For the rest of the play, there were forced jokes about politics (“I like Ike”), period-appropriate sex (missionary only), who “wears the pants,” how to make perfect finger food for guests, even post-internment-camp racism (Ryu was born in California to parents who are Japanese). Katha falls headlong into happy housewifery. Ryu gets a factory job assembling boxes. He tries to enjoy it.
The ostensible satire, near as I could tell, was a sendup of both gender roles and the very notion of happiness. But I kept missing Katha and Ryu. Why had they fallen for this con job?
Then out of the blue, the play pivoted to a storyline about ’50s-era repressed homosexuality: surreptitious assignations, shame, the whole schmear. And I’m like, wha’..?
Roger, Ryu’s supervisor on the box line, lures the closeted Dean to a nighttime intimacy, and Dean on the down low leaves his wife, Jenna, woebegone. Stephen Russell Murray, who earlier played an entertaining Omar, Katha’s swishy assistant at work, turns in a scary butch-ish performance as Roger, and Amanda Tudor also does nicely double cast as a sympathetic Jenna. Meanwhile, I’m thinking: How did we get from Ozzie and Harriet to John Rechy?
And what’s to become of Katha and Ryu, who have apparently been abandoned by the playwright in service to an unfunny satire that is less satisfying than stultifying?
Katha and Ryu were really good together. Someone please bring them back in a better play.
Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
Maple and Vine plays through October 23, 2022, on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8 pm and on Sunday at 3 pm presented by Spooky Action Theater performing at at The Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($30 Thursdays and Sundays; $40 Fridays and Saturdays; $20 students with ID; $5 discount for seniors 65+) can be purchased online.
COVID Safety: Masks must be worn by all audience members inside the theater except while eating or drinking in designated locations. The use of N95 masks is encouraged.
Maple and Vine by Jordan Harrison
Directed by Stevie Zimmerman
Jacob Yeh: Ryu
Em Whitworth: Katha
Amanda Tudor: Ellen/Jenna
Nick DePinto: Dean
Stephen Russell Murray: Roger/Omar
Production Manager: Matty Griffiths
Set Design: Jonathan Dahm Robertson
Sound Design: Brandon Cook
Properties Design: Felysia Havens Furnary
Intimacy Director: Cliff Williams
Stage Manager: Holly Morgan
Lighting Design: Hailey LaRoe
Costume Design: Alison Samantha Johnson
Assistant Stage Manager: Oliva Dibble
Spooky Action Theater hires Gavin Witt as Richard Henrich retires (news story, September 23, 2022)
Spooky Action Theater returns to the boards with ‘Maple and Vine’
(news story, September 7, 2022