Last week a group of us saw a play called Maple and Vine, which was making its West Coast premiere at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. It tells the story of a Manhattan couple that forsakes the contemporary world in favor of a community that has recreated 1955, with all its mores and morals. A review in three words: rent Pleasantville instead.
Of course, who among the nostalgic wouldn’t want to return to that year of prosperity, with two-toned cars and suburban homes popping up everywhere? Inside, televisions delivered the entertainment experience that people used to have to go out for. Men were breadwinners and women were homemakers and their roles were defined. There was no confusion. As one of my recently divorced friends said when I described the plot, “You mean I could tell my wife what to do and she’d have to do it? Sign me up!”
Playwright Jordan Harrison has drawn his tale from real-life communities, both current (though not contemporary) and past, where people withdrew to create a different society. These range from Robert Owen’s 1813 New Harmony Colony in Indiana to today’s Civil War re-enactors and Time Warp Wives, who revel in the past (but strangely enough, have their own blog). Interestingly, the proponents of these societies have spawned a word: “farb,” which stands for “Far be it for me to question/criticize your authenticity” and refers to someone who doesn’t quite get it right. Well, far be it for me to criticize Harrison, but I would have handled that completely differently.
The lead characters, Ryu and Katha, have what seems like a glittering Manhattan life: a high-rise apartment (albeit with noisy neighbors), a high-profile plastic surgeon practice for him, and a high-powered publishing job for her. Yet, they give it all up for membership in the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, whose community maintains its lives in 1955. In the SDO’s 1955 bubble, she becomes a homemaker and he works in a box factory. (Which immediately begs the question, how the hell is he paying off the copious loans it must have taken to become a plastic surgeon in the first place?)
The overarching problem each of us had with the play, which we agreed underwhelmed us, was that it took an easier dramatic path. Its conflicts were derived from issues that drove too many episodes of Cold Case – the bane of racial prejudice (Ryu is Japanese) and homosexuality (two of the characters are having an affair), whereas I would have been more interested had the play delved not into the intolerance of action, but the intolerance of thought, which is so much more insidious because it’s implicit and unconscious.
What if, instead of working in a box factory, Ryu had become a doctor in the SDO’s community and faced a bleak existence because the bigots of 1955 wouldn’t patronize him? What if, instead of being welcomed into the community, Ryu and Katha’s interracial marriage made them outcasts among people determined to maintain a Body Snatchers-like conformity to the world of the Eisenhower Administration? Talk about being careful what you wish for.
What’s even more ironic, by avoiding the issue of how people thought, Maple & Vine ends up portraying 1955 as a simplistic place. But even its own program notes belie that. In 1955 – coincidentally, the year of my birth – the world was already beginning its rough evolution into what we now identify as the Sixties:
● International Planned Parenthood League announced the test results of the first birth control pill
● Del Lyon and Phyllis Martin founded the first lesbian rights group, the Daughters of Bilitis
● Two of James Dean’s three movies were released
● Elvis Presley signed his first RCA recording contract
● Allen Ginsberg read Howl in San Francisco
● Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus
I would have preferred the dramatic tension that explored the ease with which people could slip back into antediluvian thinking. Would the men, like my friend, start treating their wives differently? Would the women, unable to rewind the social progress they’ve made, accept such behavior? How would they react to being brought in front of the SDO’s Authenticity Committee? How easy is it to change your thinking, your attitudes? If you start acting like Donna Stone, do you start thinking like Donna Stone? Or do you become like Donna Reed, one of the first major celebrities to speak out against the Vietnam War? The underlying point of the gay subplot was that you can’t run away from who you are, and yet Ryu and Katha manage to do that a tad too easily.
If anything, Maple & Vine made me realize how much I love the 21st Century. When I was younger, the mid-20th Century mesmerized me, especially big band music and radio shows. But no more. Today, I love the ability to stay in touch with people on Facebook; the ability to conduct business around the world with only time zones as the gating factor; the ability to access the creative output of any generation thanks to digital technology; the fact that my wife has as interesting a career as I do. I love the efficiency of it. I love the equality of it. I have no need to go back.