Maple and Vine opens a whole can of worms

Is happiness really possible in 1955? And if not in 1955, when?

By Lily Gordon

I never imagined that the words “light” and “thought-provoking” could be used to describe the same play, until I saw Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine.

Married New Yorkers Katha (Molly Glynn) and Ryu (Peter Sipla) are unhappy. Dissatisfied Katha hates her job as an editor for Random House, sensitive Ryu is unfulfilled by his job as a plastic surgeon, and they both resent their inability to find enough time in the day to even grab lunch together.

While we learn about the lives of Katha and Ryu, we are also introduced to another couple: Ellen (Jenny Avery), an unusually peppy woman with curled bangs and red lipstick in a blue, floral, high-necked dress, low black pumps, and pearls; and her husband Dean (Lawrence Grimm), with slick black hair and a gray suit with matching vest. This quintessential ’50s couple discusses the “happy” life living in the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence (SDO), a Midwestern community in which residents act like it is 1955—always. Ellen and Dean describe the perks of living in 1955: simplicity, a strong sense of community, few distractions, and who could forget fun phrases like “Don’t be a square!” The couples are juxtaposed for a few scenes, until finally the two worlds collide when Katha and Dean meet.

When Dean offers Katha the opportunity to experience a six-month trial period living in the SDO, Katha is gung-ho. Having recently discovered that she talks to herself—yes, talks to herself, when no one else is around— and that her last happy memory involves biking on a vacation in Amsterdam years ago, Katha figures it’s worth a shot. After all, “What’s a little hypertension if you’re happy?” Ellen reminds her. In the SDO, people are unaware of the health problems associated with smoking cigarettes, heating up TV dinners, and eating home-cooked fried meals served with ketchup, butter, and mayonnaise.

So, despite a little resistance from Ryu who calls the SDO a cult, Katha becomes Kathy, and the two pack their bags and travel back in time. All poly-blends, Velcro, and digital timepieces are left behind.

The audience laughed at naïve moments, like Kathy’s first time opening the door for a milk delivery (“Who could that be!?”), Ryu’s accomplishments at his new job (dropping a couple of seconds from his cardboard box-constructing time), and Kathy and Ryu’s first time dancing to a waltz. As the couple settles in, everything seems dandy. The audience delights in watching the couple party like it’s 1955, blissfully putting aside all 21st century knowledge. Katha and Ryu are still the same people—just happier and with an element of make-believe.

But one night, Ryu witnesses a peculiar encounter, and the plot takes a turn. Certain secrets of the society are revealed, and Kathy and Ryu discover that there is more to the SDO than home-cooked meals and friendly neighbors. We learn more about the society’s citizens who we thought we had all figured out. Ryu’s classification of the SDO as a cult seems to have been prescient—we already know that the couple has been brainwashed when Katha and Kathy become one.

The unraveling of the plot causes the audience to ponder: Is happiness really possible in 1955? And if not in 1955, when? I left the play wondering if I would be happier in a simpler time, or if time even makes a difference.