Not long ago, I interviewed a big-time record collector (as in records you play with turntables and needles) who’d taken his obsession all the way beyond conventional limits. The music of the 1920s had infiltrated every pore of this guy’s being. He was delighted with his post-World War I existence, the traces of which included a flivver in his garage, a bathtub-gin still and four Georgia O’Keefe paintings in his den, Aladdin oil lamps all over his house, an encyclopedic knowledge of pre-Depression America and the priceless Victrola and Blue Amberol record players in his living room.
Today’s tech-fueled e-bedlam, he explained, has robbed us of our interconnectedness in spite of itself, and he’d breathlessly sought refuge in a lifestyle that spoke to the depths of his soul.
Cygnet Theatre’s Maple and Vine, running through Feb. 16 and driven by its characters’ hunger for the days of yore, has this fellow’s name on it. The setting’s period of choice is the 1950s, but the differences end there—playwright Jordan Harrison gives us a lot behind his people’s desperation for a simpler time. But some perfectly fine production values and two excellent performances often get lost in a script that, for all its good intentions, clutches at a lot of straws.
While The ’20s Guy would appreciate Harrison’s look at what has or hasn’t happened to us between the ’50s and now, he probably wouldn’t be inclined to think much about the show after leaving the Old Town Theatre.
That isn’t because the basic story is particularly out of reach. It involves Ryu and Katha, a married, thirtysomething Manhattan power couple muddling through the early 21st century amid some lofty expectations (he’s a plastic surgeon, she a publishing exec). Katha’s miscarriage six months earlier has done more than induce her fear of sex; it was the marker for the couple’s retreat to 1955 through the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, a group of re-enactors who’ve immersed themselves in America’s fabled I Like Ike lifestyle. Smoking, Sanka, black-and-white TV, hatred of communism and home milk deliveries are de rigueur again; Dean, who introduced Katha to the group, concedes to keeping his cell phone, but it’s only for emergencies, and it’s locked away in a drawer.
That phone will eventually ring as part of a steamy little understory involving Dean and Roger, Ryu’s boss—meanwhile, homophobia, genderism and racism (Ryu is Japanese-American, and World War II ended only a decade earlier) surface quite amply, just as they do exponentially in our puny little virtual world. The more things change…
Or at least that’s the cliché Harrison asks us to examine for its truth. And he asks us to do so through a filter of unlikely twists—Ryu’s abandonment of his surgery practice to work in a box factory, Katha’s ingratiating efforts to suck up to the group on the heels of her career in an ivory tower, and the levels of everyone’s sacrifice in search of happiness. Harrison never quite takes a stand on the differences the decades have wrought, and that’s the rub. We expect one amid the over-the-top scenarios, and we never get it.
But please do enjoy the excellent Amanda Sitton as Dean’s wife Ellen—such a paragon of 1950s virtue there never was, with her June Cleaver underbelly and a braying oafishness to match. Jordan Miller takes direction very well as Dean—helmer Igor Goldin has coached him nicely on his highly stylized moves, a trait he shares with Sitton. Jo Anne Glover’s Katha and Greg Watanabe’s Ryu have nice individual moments, but their chemistry together is sometimes almost brotherly-sisterly (Glover, a superior local talent, seemed tired on opening night). Mike Nardelli succeeds as Roger, who has a lot to portray in a relatively short time.
The play’s bigger pictures lend themselves to the spare-ish tech treatment, illustrated through Sean Fanning’s set design, Michelle Caron’s lights and Kevin Anthenill’s sound. Meanwhile, Jeanne Reith has never designed a bad costume in her life, and her impeccable track record expands here.
In a program note, Goldin observes that “[t]here are no easy answers (to the questions on our connectedness), nor does Mr. Harrison try to create any. He just presents the hypothetical and leaves the rest for us to debate.” It’s true that Harrison refrains from offering his own answers to technology’s effects, but his scenarios thus fuel a debate in which he declines to take part. The result is an incomplete look at the prospect of human authenticity. By simply living an authentic life, fueled by authentic decisions, The ’20s Guy succeeds where Harrison fails.
‘The ’20s Guy… probably wouldn’t be inclined to think much about the show after leaving the Old Town Theatre.’