In the first act of Jordan Harrison’s thorny thought exercise, a character offers a fascinating anecdote about 1950s icons Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. When the idealized couple took their family sitcom from radio to TV, their eponymous show used exterior shots of their real home; its interior was faithfully re-created inside a soundstage. Every morning, Dean (Larry Grimm) tells us, Ozzie and Harriet and their children, David and Ricky, who, like their parents, played versions of themselves on the show, got up, left their house and drove to the studio, where they ate breakfast in a simulacrum of their dining room.
In such an environment, Dean tells us, the line between truth and fiction blurs and eventually dissipates. He and his wife, Ellen (Jenny Avery), are sort of recruiter-evangelists for the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, a supergated community of 1950s enthusiasts who shun cell phones and Starbucks to live as if it’s perpetually 1955.
The idea appeals to Katha (Molly Glynn), a frazzled, deeply unhappy Random House editor who has a chance encounter with Dean on one of his trips into the big city (he’s the S.D.O.’s designated convoy to the modern world). Any of us in this constantly connected, gadget-driven world of 80-hour workweeks and $7 lattes might daydream about such seemingly simpler times, but Katha’s plastic surgeon husband, Ryu (Peter Sipla), is dubious. Still, at Katha’s urging, he agrees to a six-month trial period. The realities of living in 1955, of course, turn out to involve sacrificing a lot more than as seen on TV.
Harrison’s play, which had a buzzy debut at this year’s Humana Festival (its New York premiere happens next week at Playwrights Horizons), has a structure that doesn’t seem as if it should work: The first act is all setup, alternating between Katha and Ryu’s city life and a seminar-like presentation by Dean and Ellen. We don’t get to the S.D.O. until the second act.
But somehow it does work. Harrison gets us on Dean and Ellen’s side and rooting for Katha and Ryu to make the leap. After intermission, we find the S.D.O.’s packed with more repressed secrets than a Douglas Sirk film.
If director Damon Kiely’s physical staging sometimes feels rote—particularly in the first act, with the actors endlessly rearranging scenic designer Keith Pitts’s sliding screens—he and his pitch-perfect, multilayered cast embrace Harrison’s high concept and dig deep. Grimm and Avery are especially striking as the S.D.O.’s seeming model couple. And as much as Harrison’s premise requires a little extra suspension of disbelief, the questions it raises—what would it be like to live in a society that, rather than progressing organically, had an “authenticity committee” devoted to preserving stasis?—make Maple and Vine a most desirable address.