Too Much Choice

In her new home on the corner of Maple and Vine, Katha (Emily Donahoe) welcomes the day as a new member of the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence (SDO) in the West Coast premiere of Jordan Harrison's Maple and Vine, playing at the American Conservatory Theater through Sunday, April 22, 2012. Photo by Kevin Berne.

There are people, I am told, who wouldn’t want to sit front row center at a play.  I am not one of those people.  We got lucky, as far as I am concerned, and were dead center first row, and I loved the seats.  The play, I’m not entirely sure about.

We went to the city to see Maple and Vine at ACT.  It’s a fine play,written by Jordan Harrison and ably directed by Mark Rucker,  thoroughly entertaining with splendid sets, fine costumes, first-rate acting and top-notch writing.  I’m just not sure what message I’m supposed to take away from it.

Maple and Vine tells the story of Katha (Emily Donahoe) and Ryu (Nelson Lee) a pair of New York  yuppies living the high pressure city life.  He’s a plastic surgeon, she’s a Random House editor still not emotionally recovered from a miscarriage 6 months previously.  One day, Katha meets Dean (Jamison Jones, who completely rocks the best haircut in San Francisco).  Dean introduces her to the idea of the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, a group of people living in an enclave in the mid-West where it is perpetually 1955.

Intrigued by the idea, and looking for a way to slow down the pace of their lives and the constant inter-connectedness of the internet age, the agree to give it a 6 month try.

Here’s where I get a bit lost–each person moving to the enclave creates a new “dossier” or back-story of their life, something that will fit in with 1955 USA.  Ryu, who is Japanese-American, born in Long Beach, becomes an immigrant karate master and ikebana practitioner, who gets a job folding and taping cardboard boxes.  This is an absurd waste of talent that any small community would need–why didn’t he become kindly Dr. Nakamura, making house calls, delivering babies and patching up skinned knees?

Nonetheless, they move in and start to become part of the community. They learn old fashioned slang, talk about the politicians and issues of the times, live as they imagine people did 57 years ago.  Ryu goes to work with his lunch pail, and notices the prejudice against his Japanese heritage.  Katha, now Kathleen, stays at home, has dinner on the table at 6, and gets involved in the Authenticity Committee, working to make the experience all the more real.

But the 50’s weren’t all poodle skirts and salisbury steak frozen dinners.  It turns out that Dean is gay, and has had a long term affair with Roger (Danny Bernardy), who is Ryu’s immediate supervisor in the box factory.  This being 1955, they have to keep it quiet, and they are both married.

Things explode, Dean leaves the community, and Katha and Ryu are faced with a choice of staying or leaving.  Katha gets pregnant, much to everyone’s joy, and they decide to stay, taking over Dean’s position as trainers and hosts of the newest arrivals.

Are the tradeoffs worth it?  Can/should people put up with the limited social mobility, the insularity, the parochialism, the lack of choices in general (things you will have to forget, they are told: chipotle, ciabatta, foccacia, gruyere, sushi, parmagianno regianno) all for the purported, dubious benefit of a simpler, more personally connected life?  I sure wouldn’t choose to stay, but I guess it’s an option some would exercise.  What would you choose?

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