Review: MAPLE AND VINE at Spooky Action

Leaving the modern world for a 1950s compound.

By: Oct. 04, 2022
Review: MAPLE AND VINE at Spooky Action

Even as patrons file in Spooky Action's basement theater space at the Universalist National Memorial Church, the central couple of the new production "Maple and Vine" are already on stage in bed.

But Em Whitworth's Katha can't quite sleep. She's sitting up, staring into space, continually looking at her phone. She's caught up in the daily anxieties of work, home life and screen distractions. She's also still mourning a miscarriage six months earlier.

Her husband Ryu (Jacob Yeh) is sympathetic, but has to catch his own sleep in order to be ready for his long days as a plastic surgeon.

It's quickly evident they're a young couple whirling in the isolating Spin Cycle of modern life: work, home, takeout, work, repeat, with breaks for TikTok and FaceTime and a double latte.

Which made it seem appealing when a snappily dressed man who looks like a poster boy a vintage clothing stop, from his spats to his fedora, suggests a different way: Moving to a gated community where everyone inside acts as if it's 1955.

Women stay home and make dinner. Men go off to work. No screens. Time to really see another. Such self-directed time travel can have its appeal (especially in fashions). But there are more than a few drawbacks to the good old days, particularly for this pair, who are suddenly considered a mixed race couple because of his Japanese-American heritage. Other closeted couples have it worse.

It's like a "Twilight Zone" (to mention another artifact from the 50s) stretched out to a longer meditation. And it has pacing and smart turns maybe because playwright Jordan Harrison wrote for quality TV ("Orange is the New Black") before he became an in-demand contemporary playwright ("Marjorie Prime").

The Spooky Action production fairly sparkles from its solid production values to strong acting, particularly from the women. Whitworth is just right as Katha (who must revert to Kathy in the '50s compound). A formerly cynical publishing exec who adheres to her adopted lifestyle with a lively verve, Whitworth nearly carries the show with a spirit that shows how effortlessly she's able to channel Harrison's humor.

But Amanda Tudor who plays a perfectly coiffed 50s community leader, shows several layers as well, especially as she tries to keep face as things around her are crumbling. What's more, she's one of a couple cast members who have two different roles - and she's completely different but just as effective as an office gossip of the present day (which is 2011), sometimes switching between the two without benefit of costume change.

Stephen Russell Murray is the other actor with double duty; he's a callous co-worker in the 21st century and a factory boss in the 50s. Nick Depinto is salesman-perfect as Dean, the guy who reels the new couple in. He brandishes his own kind of sparkle, ingratiating himself to the audience by doing his initial monologues as if he's speaking to new recruits, and improvising his patter by directly involving that night's viewers, going beyond simple eye contact to asking direct questions.

An illicit relationship within the bunker seems at first a superfluous side plot, but it's likely meant to add some seriousness and heft to a play that would otherwise be wholly amusing.

Overall, it's tough to imagine that a high paid doctor would give up his profession to become a lowly box folder in an antique factory (but maybe that's what a guy does to keep his wife happy). Harrison makes some solid points about the artificiality of such an enterprise by bringing up another '50s artifact - "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" which, after all, features a typical family who went to work playing themselves on a set that replicated their own home, the original re-enactors.

Jonathan Dahm Robertson's set here is a functional one in which the cool grays of the couple's 21st century apartment gives way to their colorful '50s bungalow (though the panels that were supposed to open and magically display this new home were a little sticky opening night).

Some may want to attend just to witness the glorious costumes of designer Alison Samantha Johnson, whose boldly-patterned, crinoline-boosted '50s dresses are inspired.

Stevie Zimmerman's direction is seamless and fast-moving for a piece that seems somehow less fanciful after many families seriously considered radically changing their lives to get away from it all during the pandemic, fedora or not.

Photo Credit: Jacob Yeh and Em Whitworth. Photos by DJ Corey Photography

Running time: About two hours, 15 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission.

"Maple and Vine" continues through Oct. 23 at Spooky Action Theater, at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St NW, Washington. Masks must be work by all audience members. Information and tickets can be found online.