"Maple and Vine” has an implausible high-concept premise: A stressed-out Manhattan couple abandons the modern world to live in a community obsessed with the presumed simplicity of the 1950s. While it makes for an interesting thought experiment, this foundation makes building characters worth caring about an uphill battle.
But at the Firehouse Theatre, director Mark Lerman ultimately wins that battle. He gets a big assist from some key cast members, but not without some visible strain. Jordan Harrison’s script doesn’t quite connect all of the dots and seems only too aware of its inherent challenges. When one character warns, “You can end up sounding like you’re a person at a theme party, not a person,” it’s like a built-in warning to the play’s cast.
The actor with the biggest burden is McLean Jesse, who plays Katha, a burned-out middle manager still grieving months after a miscarriage. Katha quits her job on a whim, and then promptly runs into Dean (Landon Nagel), a perky fellow in a dapper old-fashioned suit, who tells her the seductive tale of the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence. Hidden in the depths of the Midwest, the society offers a perpetual 1955 lifestyle, free from such fancy food as focaccia and full of simple pleasures like playing charades after cocktails.
Hopped up on the fantasy of a less complicated life, Katha easily convinces her husband, Ryu (Xander H. Wong) — a plastic surgeon tired of catering to narcissistic New Yorkers — to give the place a try. Once there, it’s not long before the couple experiences both the intransigence of the community, reinforced by an authenticity committee run by Dean’s wife, Ellen (Addie Barnhart), and the period-appropriate prejudice, epitomized by Ryu’s new boss, Roger (Adam Valentine).
As the on-the-nose reference to the novel “Peyton Place” indicates, there’s a lurid underbelly to the society, and the second act shows Ryu and Katha’s somewhat surprising response to it.
Lerman has a fluid style, and scenes move seamlessly from one to the other, aided by Andrew Bonniwell’s lighting design that effectively delineates the separate interactions happening simultaneously onstage. This fluidity helps mask some of the script’s inherent problems, such as Katha’s cringe-worthy request for more obvious displays of intolerance from the community. Given the unusual premise, there are too few funny moments and they come mostly from clever contrasts rather than actual jokes.
Jesse turns in a fine performance, her enthusiasm about her new life working only because of the authenticity of her first-act burnout. Wong doesn’t deliver as nuanced a portrayal and his character’s journey is the least clear, making the couple’s trajectory less compelling than it could be.
Much more intriguing is the relationship between Dean and Ellen and the part Roger plays in it. Valentine skillfully avoids potential one-note pitfalls in his characterization, and both Langel and Barnhart use their theme-party personas to their advantage, revealing unexpected depth beneath their facades.
Matthew Allar, who designed the costumes and the set, does a great job reproducing period frocks and suits, and his “Ozzie and Harriet” backdrop reinforces the milieu of the second act. “Maple and Vine” struggles to comment on the roles we all play every day but truly succeeds when focused on the timeless struggles of people in love. S
“Maple and Vine” runs through May 8 at the Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad St. Tickets and information are available at firehousetheatre.org.