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Back to the 1950s, giving up the smartphones and designer vodka

THEATER REVIEW: "Maple and Vine" at Next Theatre in Evanston ★★★

Chris Jones

3:58 PM CDT, November 2, 2011

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If you have ever arrived home looking for affection and found a partner hunched over a laptop, or if you've been tracked down after hours by a boss who controls your smartphone and your life, then you might find the premise of "Maple and Vine" very enticing. In this new play by Jordan Harrison — a hit at the Humana Festival in Louisville earlier this year and now in a Chicago-area premiere at the Next Theatre of Evanston — a pair of stressed-out urban professionals decide to pack it all in and go back to the 1950s.

Thankfully, this does not involve time travel. Rather, the burned-out New Yorkers Katha (who is in publishing) and Ryu (a plastic surgeon) merely take advantage of an invitation to join a voluntary community in some unspecified Midwest locale where all of the residents act like it's always 1955. There's a lot of smoking and drinking — although the vodka must be Smirnoff rather than Grey Goose. The women tend house and volunteer. The men come home at 5 p.m. to a cooked meal on the table. There are neither computers nor synthetic fabrics. Conversation is prized, as are party games. People both judge and take care of each other.

Harrison's premise doesn't cover all the bases. For example, it's never quite clear how this community, which apparently has its own factories and infrastructure, interacts economically with the outside world and still keeps its own rule. But his notions hold together well enough to sustain a couple of mostly humorous hours in the theater. It's not that far-fetched, really. If you've been to actual neo-urban communities like Seaside, Fla., you'll have seen the same nostalgic impulse for narrower streets, broader sidewalks and a more enveloping sense of community, albeit with convenient wi-fi. It's just that the characters in Harrison's world take period authenticity a good deal further. Since Ryu (played by Peter Sipla) is of Asian descent, the other residents force themselves to stare at him in the supermarket, or maybe offer a few unsolicited comments about the quality of his English or drop a few lines about how much they, too, like Chinese food. Just like it would have been in 1955.

The play is as its best when it makes you really think about whether everything in the modern world represents progress. Is the bleed of work into personal time really a good thing? Don't you wish you could call up a corporation and have a conversation with a real person? Wouldn't you like to better know your neighbors? Your kids? When "Maple and Vine" hits those sensitive areas, it achieves real resonance. When it's poking fun at the 1950s lifestyles and prejudices — a very familiar motif — it feels slighter.

Much the same could be said of Damon Kiely's mostly successful production. Molly Glynn, who plays Katha (or, in the less pretentious 1950s, Kathy), forges a character whom you genuinely feel needs to get out of the modern Manhattan rat race. You buy why she goes — although not so much why her husband goes with her. The ambassadors from the 1950s, played by Larry Grimm and Jenny Avery, are not, in the early scenes, quite as persuasive, or as credible, or as counter-intuitive as they should be. It's very easy for this show to get cute — and there are times at Next when the 1950s reality crosses into mere archetype, which works against the truth of the premise. When it feels like real people are trying to flailing around looking for happiness in either era — plus ca change, you might say — the piece really has some potency.

For the most part, "Maple and Vine," which is a very clever and entertaining piece of new writing, bops along very intriguingly and will surely spark post-show conversation and, maybe, even a few useful adjustments. The production does not come with sufficient visual coherence — some of the boundaries of this imaginary world are confusing, and an intrusive set of moving screens sometimes threatens to swallow the whole affair. But the acting is often very good. The consistently excellent Glynn rings true throughout. And as his character approaches a personal crisis, Grimm strikes a very clever balance between role playing and devastation. Avery has her late-in the-play moments, too, as does Paul D'Addario, who plays a resident of the 1955 whose personal desires keeps him outside in the park, rather than with his own place at a more enlightened table.

As Harrison clearly intends us to realize, striving for simplicity and community is a lot more complicated than just going back in time.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Dec. 4

Where: Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Tickets: $25-$40 at 847-475-1875 or nexttheatre.org