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
A slapdash review from the usually thorough, literate Stoltenberg. This play raised serious, provocative questions and deserved not to be dismissed as not the play he wanted to see. You’re supposed to assess what’s in front of you, not something else. And at least get the characters names right! And using “like” – just lazy
I am so surprised that John did not get this play. It was full of challenging moments, ideas that made you think, things that were shocking but asked questions. Normally this reviewer is really thoughtful and really explores the themes and ideas of a play but he seems to have nodded off and had to phone in his review next day. If I were his editor I’d have handed it back to him and said give that another go, or send another reviewer to see it. There were questions about race, identity, gender, sexual orientation, feminism and all really relevant in this still MAGA world we live in, and the truth that our lives are busy and difficult and overly technologically dependent – would living in a place where suppression of aspects of ourselves is acceptable and normal possibly make us happier? Shoddy work John. I found hours of thoughts and conversation afterwards and the deep work these actors and the director and designers put into this deserved better
While it’s true that Maple and Vine has topical issues stuck all over it, like Post-its on a cluttered bulletin board, its core character storyline turns on sexual politics that are profoundly misogynist. Katha is mourning a miscarriage and is reluctant to have sex, which is understandable, but Ryu is eager to try to conceive again. The playwright’s solution: flee to the 1950s. Voilà, a bun in the oven. No self-respecting woman playwright would have let this sexist stunt go unexamined, but Jordan Harrison did and is lauded for getting away with it because he throws so many distracting issues in the air. I did not mention this plot problem in my review because it’s a spoiler, but it so distanced me from the play that I wanted to be done with it.
That said, the production and performances really are excellent.
John Stoltenberg‘s ordinarily acute analysis of drama nearly put me off seeing this production, but I am very glad I decided to go anyway. Since the play has now closed, perhaps further commentary is irrelevant, but John seems to have entirely missed certain factual details by insisting on looking at the play through his profoundly feminist lens. As a feminist, myself, what I saw was not the sort of Stepford wives scenario he presents. On the contrary, it is the woman who chooses to make the admittedly unlikely decision to move to the 1950s, she also drives the decision to stop taking contraception and she is most determinedly the one who embraces the new community with all its significant flaws. The play certainly raises questions about feminism, as well as racism and homophobia. But it does not tie things up in a neat bow nor is it advocating any such decision. On the contrary, it poses questions that resonate days later, in a way that is both entertaining and provocative the play is not without its problems, most of which were extremely ably handled by cast, and particularly Director. Being left with an uneasy feeling and sense of ambiguity is not a flaw. When reviewers see plays, they need to put their own political or social positions in their pockets. The Japanese, American husband in this scenario did not force his wife to move to the 1950s in order Put a bun in her oven! Once you understand that John’s analysis is wrong in this very important point you see the play for what it actually is