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Life in the Closet Can Be Nifty in the 1950s: ACT's Maple and Vine Shows Us the Upside of Repression

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On the corner of then and now is Maple and Vine. The house on that corner is part of a planned community that gives the word "planned" a rigorous new meaning. Here, in suburban America, 1955 has become a lifestyle choice. Here, Americans can reject the cacophonous distractions of 2012 and find sanctuary in a place where every day is 1955. All you need are the right gloves, the right fedora and the desire for a cocoon of simplicity.

Such is the cumbersome premise of Maple and Vine, Jordan Harrison's curious new play about an overwhelmed Manhattan couple who stumble into a sect who call themselves The Society of Dynamic Obsolence. The SDO have isolated themselves into a self-sufficient community that exists in a perennial 1955. In modern day Manhattan, Katha and Ryu gaze into their back-to-back laptops and curse the noisy upstairs neighbors they've never met. He's a plastic surgeon, she's a harried editor who pops sleeping pills. At the breakfast table, she's watching the 1985 miniseries Anne of Green Gables on YouTube, remembering how she watched it as a kid. "I don't know if I'm nostalgic for the 1880s or the 1980s," she tells her husband.

But all of a sudden, she becomes nostalgic for the 1950s. Or, I guess, since she's thirty-something, her notion of the era. Or maybe just a Calgon-Take-Me-Away colony. But she's had it up to here with her job (a flaming assistant and his bitchy BFF give the office a straight out of Ugly Betty vibe.) When a dapper, 50s-fashioned gent (Jamison Jones as Dean) who asks the time of day turns out to be a SDO recruiter…addax yadda, yadda…Katha and Ryu quit their jobs and move to an ersatz era where you can say Tupperware but you can't say Velcro.

I'm pretty sure there's a yadda yadda there. Or Jordan Harrison's vague narrative progresses like a lazy yada yada. Eventually, Act II delivers the money shot: 1950s stylin' costumes (Alex Jaeger) and set (Ralph Funicello) and the amusing premise of urbane New Yorkers who are tourists in provincial I-Like-Ike olden days. One wonders if the whole shaky thing hopes to ride on the (retro/vintage) coattails of our recent Mad Men craze. The 2010's TV audiences love Mad Men's clothes, the pocket squares and the martini lunches -- but we also enjoy deconstructing the mores of the Sterling Cooper crowd. From our perch in the post-chauvinist 21st century and through the lens of Mad Men's crack directors and writers, the 1950s are so much more interesting than a Doris Day movie.

But Jamison Jones' dapper Dean is no Don Draper. And while director Mark Rucker might hope to combine the seer and the seen, the tourist and the local, into the same character, Maple and Vine's faux fifties residents don't have nearly as much insight as you and me.

Katha and Ryu (an appealing Emily Donahoe and Nelson Lee) are charmed by cocktails with the next door neighbors, the construction of pigs in a blanket, ladies who lunch and men who wear the pants. They are happy to trade hummus and Portobello mushrooms for Sanka and salt. And sex is so much hotter in the age of repression.

Indeed Katha (she is now Kathy) seems to get off on her neighbor's referring to her Asian husband as Oriental. For a truly authentic experience, she suggests other forms of subtle racism.

The SDO's Authenticity Committee meets regularly to discuss what products and practices will disrupt their fourth wall. Birth control, for instance, was not yet legal in 1955. Julia Coffey offers a precise performance as Ellen, the committee head and strict proprietor of standards and verisimilitude.

"We could do anything we wanted so we didn't want anything," 1950s Kathy says, describing a nightmare in which she is 2012 Katha. In the intentional community of 1955, turpitude is made all the more thrilling -- or is it tortured? -- within the confines of a self-imposed rigid morality. But are the transgressors tortured souls or are they fake tortured? Are their emotions even real or is this all some kind of Truman Show? In this intentionally absurdist play, why ask why when a yadda yadda will do.

Maple and Vine runs through April 22, 2012 at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit act-sf.org or call 415.749.2228.

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