It’s tempting to think that traveling back to the 1950s could solve the problems of 21st-century life. Who wouldn’t want to trade harried schedules and information overload for the serene life of manicured lawns, cocktails and crab puffs?
In Jordan Harrison’s “Maple and Vine,” Katha (Emily Donahoe) and Ryu (Nelson Lee) seem likely candidates for a full-life transplant, and Harrison’s comedy, making its West Coast premiere at the American Conservatory Theater, whisks them back in time faster than you can say “I Love Lucy.”
We first meet the couple on the brink of crisis – she’s an overworked editor approaching burnout; he’s a plastic surgeon weary of giving wealthy women facelifts. Adding to their malaise is a recent miscarriage that has dashed their hopes for parenthood.
Relief appears in the figure of a handsome stranger – it’s Dean (Jamison Jones), the president of a gated community called the “Society of Dynamic Obsolescence,” inviting them to relocate to 1955.
Lured by the promise of a simpler life, Katha and Ryu sign up for a six-month trial. By Act 2, they’ve landed in a cheerful suburban community where Ryu gets a job in a box factory, and Katha – renamed Kathy – throws herself into her new role as homemaker.
When the veneer cracks, though, troublesome issues surface. It’s not as easy as giving up foods no one has heard of in the ’50s – sushi, lattes, “chipotle anything.”
Job discrimination, racism and homophobia are the norm. So are secrets and shame. There’s a separate park for “communists and homosexuals.” And Kathy and Ryu are suddenly seen as a “mixed-race” couple,
Harrison’s script delves into myriad themes in funny, surprising ways, and the cast is outstanding. Donahoe enlivens Katha’s journey from depressive modernista to determined domestic goddess; Lee is a wry, laid-back Ryu.
Jones’ elegant Dean and Julia Coffey’s chilly Ellen exude ’50s repression. Danny Bernardy is strong as a shadowy lover; he and Coffey double as Katha’s catty co-workers.
Director Mark Rucker gives the show a fluent, slightly surreal staging, with Ralph Funicello’s sets floating in and out. Russell H. Champa’s lighting brightens the playing spaces, and Alex Jaeger contributes a fabulous parade of witty costumes.
In the dual worlds of “Maple and Vine,” the candy-colored past may be the more attractive of the two. But spending a little time there shows us just how far we’ve come.
Maple and Vine
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. most Sundays; closes April 22
Tickets: $10 to $95
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org