Into every theater company, a little failure must fall. Now in its 15th season, the Curious Theatre Company has consistently impressed me and thousands of other theater-goers with its choices of plays and executions thereof. See any three Curious offerings in a given season, and you’re virtually guaranteed to witness an award-winning production or, at least, performance.
Curious’ latest, then, is an outlier. A statistical anomaly. It’s the exception that proves the rule and, even so, it’s not chew-off-your-foot-to-escape-it bad, it’s just not very good. Primary blame must be placed on playwright Jordan Harrison, for his Maple and Vine takes an intriguing premise and then misses every single opportunity to wring something meaningful or memorable from it.
We first meet yuppie couple Katha and Ryu (Karen Slack and Dale Li, respectively) in bed in front of a beautiful tree-shaped, built-in bookshelf that was, in a way, the highlight of Maple and Vine for me. I’m not overly focused on decorating details and will take serviceable over whimsical most any day of the week, but I expect I’ll be keeping an eye out for a chance to buy or build something like the Tree of Knowledge bookshelf (my appellation — all rights reserved). Katha’s name appears to have been chosen solely to allow her to change it to Kathy later in the play to demark her acceptance of a new and highly contrived reality. I would love to believe that Ryu’s name was selected by Harrison in homage to the Street Fighter video game franchise, but I highly doubt that is the case.
Touched off by an immediately obvious, eventually revealed event but really symptomatic of a generalized, non-differentiated and completely pedestrian lower-upper-class ennui, Katha is in the throes of depression. She has a loving, devoted husband. She has no financial concerns because that loving, devoted husband is also a plastic surgeon, and Katha is at least middle management in the publishing industry. The couple lives in a beautiful apartment (more likely a paid-for condo) in a vibrant city, but apparently “something” is missing.
After a chance encounter with Dean (Josh Robinson), Katha learns that there is an entire community of disaffected wonks just like herself that have retreated to a gated, The Village-style, synthetic 1955 to escape the horrors of the Internet and delivery sushi. Dean and his wife, Ellen (C. Kelly Leo), are the leaders of this group known as the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence (SDO), and they convince Katha and Ryu to join them for a six-month trial period.
That the only significant plot development that occurs after Katha and Ryu arrive in the SDO’s Epcot Center-like bubble centers on another character, and is so on-the-nose obvious that it borders on unforgivably cliché, is but the largest problem I had with Maple and Vine. As the playwright is well aware, there are real people all over the world who retreat from their lives by becoming Civil War recreationists, pretend Mars colonists or by devoting themselves to any number of other make-believe realities. A play examining the psychology of such a person, or mining what would seem to be easy-pickings humor from this particularly flamboyant strain of obsession, would likely be a joy.
Sadly, Harrison’s Maple and Vine not only fails to explore these ideas at all, it stumbles over its own feet with even the most basic plot and character choices. As noted above, there is the second act revelation that is anything but revelatory. Before that, though, Harrison expects the audience to swallow that a successful plastic surgeon of Japanese descent would — even for the love of his borderline hysterical wife — willingly sequester himself in a pre-civil rights, 1955 version of America in which he will not only be a second-class citizen but also squander his years of training and sacrifice to become a doctor.
The flat, unbelievable characters (with the exception of Robinson’s Dean, who is spot-on throughout), lazy plotting and lack of insightfulness are exacerbated by a structure that seems somehow to have more scene changes than scenes. The actors have no chance to establish rhythms because the stage hands are front and center every two minutes moving floating walls and furniture about to no particular end.
Of all the plays I’ve seen, many of the best were presented by the Curious Theatre Company. Though Maple and Vine is a moxie-free miss, I’ve no doubt that Curious will be knocking socks off again next time around.
Maple and Vine plays through Feb. 23 at Curious Theatre, 1080 Acoma St., Denver. Tickets are $18-$44. Call 303-623-0524 or visit www.curioustheatre.org.