By Stanford Friedman
Within the 32 scene, three hour slog of Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine, there is a sharp, 90-minute social satire desperate to reveal itself. In 2015, Mr. Harrison gave us one of the eeriest, most fast-forwarding plays of that season, the Pulitzer nominated Marjorie Prime. This 2011 work shares some of Marjorie’s warnings about technology and concerns over the survival of the nuclear family, but it often seems to be in rewind mode, establishing themes and plot points only to reestablish them later on. Meanwhile, on a whole other level, this particular production is also about how we communicate and how we stay silent, for it is staged by the New York Deaf Theatre, a nearly 40 year old company of deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing actors who perform works in American Sign Language. ASL, captioning and voiced dialog are all integrated here, a welcoming scenario for deaf theater-goers and an eye-opening experience for hearing members of the audience.
Act One takes 75 minutes to set up a premise that could be established in half that time. Katha (Christina Marie) and Ryu (C.J. Malloy) are a thirtysomethng couple struggling to right their relationship after a miscarriage. She works a stressful job at Random House, he’s a bored plastic surgeon. Dean (Christopher Corrigan) and Ellen (Liarra Michelle) are a seemingly happy pair, thanks to their devotion to a particular cultish way of life. They belong to a Stepford Wives type of community where it is forever 1955. Sushi, no; crab puffs, yes. Modern day stress, no; blatant racism, yes. Public displays of gay pride, no; unbridled outbursts of repressed homosexual desire, you betcha. Because the plot is always greener on the other side, Katha and Ryu decide to accept Dean and Ellen’s invitation to join the cult, forsaking their cellphones and synthetics.
The pacing picks up in the second act with everyone now living the Leave It to Beaver lifestyle. Katha learns to cook and is rebranded as Kathy. Ryu gets no name change, but does get the shaft thanks to his Japanese-American heritage. He is put to work in a box factory and targeted for a variety of prejudicial treatments, mostly from his closeted boss, Roger (Dickie Hearts). And Dean and Ellen turn out to have a relationship that is more Tennessee Williams than Ozzie and Harriet. Mr. Harrison makes a point of freezing the cultists in 1955, “never 1956 or ‘57.” Yet, he cannot help himself in having Kathy partake of the 1956 novel, Peyton Place; and who can blame him since it provides such a concise metaphor for her scandalous, secretive surroundings.
Film director Jules Dameron makes her stage director debut here and has a field day exploring her options of communicating to the audience. Often, the actors sign their lines with projected captions overhead in long ribbons of silence. Other times an actor or audio recording will speak the lines as another actor is signing them. When Kathy dreams, Ryu narrates her thoughts. They play charades, they use flash cards, they teletype, they Facetime. Dameron’s cinematic eye also accounts for a strong opening moment where we find Katha holding two pieces of a disassembled crib, making us wonder if she is putting it together, taking it apart, or surreally portraying a baby trapped in wreckage.
Ms. Marie and Mr. Malloy are fun to follow as their Kathy and Ryu fall further into their new, old lives, at times skirting the border of The Twilight Zone in their conviction to 50’s authenticity. Mr. Corrigan turns in a strong performance, giving Dean a slick salesman veneer while harboring repressed guilt-ridden desires. Similarly, Ms. Michelle’s Ellen is so polished on the outside, we are blinded to her woes until she finally abandons her facade. Mr. Hearts has a more problematic time playing the secretly gay Roger after playing an openly gay colleague of Katha’s, named Omar, in the first act. His Roger is thuggish and his Omar is irritating, leaving us to wonder why any of the other characters would want either of them. Not that any of the gang are quite in their right mind. As Kathy observes, “It was so easy to get what they wanted that they no longer wanted anything.”
Maple And Vine – By Jordan Harrison; directed by Jules Dameron.
WITH: Christina Marie (Katha/Kathy), Christopher Corrigan (Dean), Dickie Hearts (Roger/Omar), C.J. Malloy (Ryu) and Liarra Michelle (Ellen/Jenna).
Lighting Designer: Annie Wiegand, Projections Designer: Gregory Casparian, Scenic Designer: Jennifer Varbalow, Costume Designer: Lisa Renee Jordan, Props Designer: Kate Testa, Sound Designer: Adam Salberg, Production Stage Manager: Miriam Rochford. New York Deaf Theatre at The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas St., 212-226-0051, www.theflea.org. Through May 27. Running time: 3 hours.