Flip the Script Friday: Jordan Harrison, Maple and Vine

This is one seriously fantastic new (ish) play. Even if you don’t like plays, or scripts, or Flip the Script Friday, you’re going to want to read this review and probably, subsequently, the play. Just think of this post as a book review. It’s something unlike I’ve ever read before, and I’d be thrilled if I ever got the chance to see it. It’s called Maple and Vine, by Jordan Harrison.

The Basics

Maple and Vine was written by Jordan Harrison. It premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2011. 

Characters

  • Katha – An assistant at a publishing house. Mid to late 30s. Married to Ryu.
  • Ryu – A plastic surgeon. Mid to late 30s. Married to Katha.
  • Dean – Late 30s, member of SDO. Married to Ellen.
  • Ellen – Late 30s, member of SDO. Married to Dean.*
  • Jenna – Co-worker of Kathy’s at the publishing house.*
  • Omar – Co-worker of Kathy’s at the publishing house.*
  • Roger – Member of SDO.*

*NOTE: Ellen/Jenna are played by the same actor, as are Omar/Roger.

Setting/Plot

Present day, American metropolis (most likely New York City, but never directly stated – Katha does talk about moving to Nyack, though). Corporate drone Katha and plastic surgeon Ryu have hit the wall, in both their personal and professional lives. Both feel unfulfilled in their careers, Katha due to office gossip and Ryu tired of his entitled trophy-wife clients. One day, after Katha has quit her job, she meets Dean in a park, looking right out of the 1950s, and finds out that he is part of a group called the Society of Planned Obsolescence, which consists of couples and families who live in a private community where it’s perpetually 1955 – living history, but not for tourists. Katha is intrigued, and convinces Ryu to give up his job and do a “trial run” at SDO with Dean and his doting wife, Ellen. As Katha (now referred to as Kathy) and Ryu settle into their new lives as a housewife and a box factory worker, they face challenges in trying to keep up with the times, while Dean and Ellen encounter struggles as well due to some unfinished business.

My Thoughts

Even though it takes place in the slow pace of the “1950s,” it reads like a thriller; you want to find out what happens next, what Roger comes up with, how Kathy and Ryu change, what kind of style the playwright is going to utilize next. Speaking of style, Jordan Harrison really ramps up the 50s nostalgia by sprinkling direct-address scenes in between the action. It’s much more powerful in the first act, as it feels like Dean and Ellen are narrating newsreels straight to you. As the action goes from big city to 1950s community, Kathy starts to appear more and more frequently in those scenes while becoming less of a main focus in the main plot, just as she is relegated to the home. The dream sequences in the second act are a little out of the ordinary and seem like a way to keep the audience aware of the Jenna and Omar characters (who, by Act II, have absolutely no reason to reappear in the play).

But back to the content of the piece, it speaks to the way I’ve been thinking/feeling lately – how life seemed so much simpler back then, or at least in the 1980s/1990s. True, we still used our land lines and we didn’t have Google to help us function, but expectations were lower. It was a simpler time. It was a better time. Nobody hid behind their social media accounts or sat (like me and many others) in front of their computer screens every waking moment of their lives. People had meaningful relationships after meeting at social events designed for that purpose, unlike the anonymity and nebulousness of the world of dating apps. People had fewer possessions to keep track of. Granted, it wasn’t perfect – the draft, the Cuban Missile Crisis – but there are some elements of that era which would not be unwelcome to see return. And I know where your mind is right now, but I am of course against anything related to the MAGA movement because the overall quality of life in America has exponentially improved to the point that if I had the chance to move back to the 1950s, I would say no without a second thought. Life was not perfect then, and it isn’t perfect now, but the conveniences and developments that have taken place since the 1950s make me incredibly grateful to be living in this time.

Major Themes

Give Me the Simple Life

SCENE 10.

(ELLEN speaks directly to us. She smokes, wonderfully. This time DEAN is standing farther off, just out of the light.)

ELLEN:

Here are some things you’ve never heard of.

Hummus.

Baba Ganoush.

Falafel.

Focaccia.

Ciabatta.

Whole grain bread…

(She raises her eyebrows significantly: “Yes, not even whole grain bread.”)

Let’s start with Dean and Ellen. Dean seems like the perfect 1950s guy, and he is, aside from his love affair with Roger. Of course, back then, it was unheard of for gay couples to have a household, but the way Ellen deals with it (and remember, all these characters are products of the 21st century) is just so 1950s. The sneaking around, the denial, the secrecy, the doubletalk – though they didn’t appear in I Love Lucy, the way everyone reacts to it shows how scarily accurate this society is aiming for.

KATHA: You’re the one who’s always talking about the hours. The emptiness. The injecting goo into trophy wives who think you’re their best friend. Give it six months. Think of it like a vacation. A vacation from your life. And if you miss all that, I’m sure they’ll be dying to have you back. (Beat.) Do you love your job?

RYU: No.

KATHA: Do you love your life?

RYU: No.

KATHA: Do you love me?

RYU: Yes.

Then, there’s Katha and Ryu. In the beginning, they seem rather whiny and I actually pictured them to be millennials, or at least decades younger than Dean/Ellen, when it turns out they’re all roughly the same age. Katha and Ryu have a code word whenever they need to talk about something non-1950s related, but it becomes used less and less frequently. Katha, in particular, undergoes the most dramatic change. In the present day, she’s a jaded, miserable, pill-popping drone whose sex drive has completely gone away. As the couple regress to the 1950s, they discover what makes their lives meaningful and whole, letting go of their past lives in both a literal and spiritual sense.

Hi Honey, I’m Home

My favorite part of the play is seeing how Kathy and Ryu flourish in their new environment. And it doesn’t feel forced; you get to see all the little victories that validate their new lives, such as watching Ryu learn how to assemble a box or Kathy as she follows a recipe for the first time in the kitchen. There’s no magic, just a logical learning curve which makes the questionable “fakeness” associated with the concept of SDO seem like a warm bath rather than a bucket of icy water tossed into your face. Rather than become 50s caricatures like Dean and Ellen seemed in Act I, Ryu and Kathy emerge as…well-informed for their time period, while at the same time firmly ensconced in their new lives. It’s not a complete trading of places, because Kathy and Ryu’s personalities don’t change, just their outfits and speech patterns.

The Elephant in the Living Room

In case you couldn’t tell by his name, Ryu is Japanese. His and Kathy’s surname is Nakata, and as an interracial couple, it’s pretty obvious that they’re an anomaly in their new society. Although it’s never a good thing to be on the receiving end of discrimination, and I think that Ryu totally goes overboard in his new “backstory,” I’m glad that a) it exists, and b) it is very much discussed in Act II as much as it is unremarkable in Act I. Even though Kathy and Ryu embrace their new lives, and yes, some racial comments/incidents occur, by the end, the two of them have brought the normalization of interracial couples into the 1950s – as weird as it sounds – and by subtly bringing in this 21st century concept, it makes them way more likeable; even though their world has gone backwards in time, they’ve inexplicably spun an inaccuracy into an advantage.

The Title, Though

At first glance, I thought that the title was kind of weird. I think the phrase “Maple and Vine” is stated only once in the play, used when referring to the location of Kathy/Ryu’s house in the SDO community. I was thinking along the lines of “Hollywood and Vine.” Repeating it over and over in my head, it came to me – of course, it’s the same Bible verse that appears in The Comedy of Errors (Shakespeare) and gives the play Cling To Me Like Ivy its name. In case you’re lost, it’s that saying about how a woman should be attached to her husband just like a vine to a tree. After that, I appreciated the title a lot more.

How I’d Flip It

Scenery-wise, I’d have to go with proscenium. The content literally begs to be enclosed in a picture frame, as unexciting as that may be. The costumes would be fun, attempting to contrast the 21st century crew with the SDO folks. Sound-wise, I think it would be fun to have some sprightly 1950s-commercial sounds, the ones that accompany cleaning products or instructional videos on how to properly pack a suitcase. For some reason, I’m not hearing a lot of 21st century sound for the first act, and it would be interesting to have it quiet, at least during the Katha/Ryu scenes. I’d really need to find songs from 1955 or earlier; I don’t want to get kicked out of the SDO. Another fun idea: pipe in some snippets from old radio broadcasts – either commercials, banter, or headlines from that year.

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