In the opening scenes of Maple and Vine, Jordan Harrison's new Off Broadway comedy, signifiers of cold modernity abound: laptops in bed, the iPad 2, ubiquitous lattes, stainless steel kitchens. Katha (Marin Ireland) hasn't quite reached midlife yet, but the futility and stress of her contemporary Manhattan existence nevertheless throw her into one doozy of a crisis. A bundle of frazzled nerves, she finds herself barely functioning at work and unloading her neuroses on her preternaturally patient husband Ryu (Peter Kim) at home. In her fragile state, she meets a dapperly dressed man named Dean (Trent Dawson) who convinces her that things really were better in the 1950s, when people weren't so plugged into technology and actually interacted with each other. Dean reveals that he's a representative from the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, a community of re-enactors who pretend it's perpetually 1955 and live in a suburb cut off from the outside world.
Katha and Ryu abruptly call it quits on the 21st century and follow Dean and his June Cleaver-esque wife Ellen (Jeanine Serralles). Ryu, a plastic surgeon, takes a job at the SDO's box-making factory, and Katha undergoes a radical transformation from a high-powered professional to a cake-baking, child-rearing housewife. For the most part, the play avoids painting the '50s in overly broad strokes: The retro universe is neither a pristine, picket-fenced fantasy nor a sinister dystopia, and its inhabitants are fully aware of its artificiality – they just choose to ignore it.
While the premise lays the groundwork for some big laughs Katha and Ryu have a secret safe word for when they absolutely have to break from their period personas, and Ryu's Japanese background elicits some measured, chronologically correct prejudice it can feel rather low-stakes. These people could leave the SDO if they wanted to, and their motivations for being there in the first place seem flimsy at best. In the second act, an ill-conceived sexual-identity conflict brings the plot to a forced, utterly predictable climax.
Still, the crackling dialogue by Harrison, totally committed performances (particularly from Ireland), and ingenious set design by Alexander Dodge will carry your interest through the two-hour running time. With the help of wheels and hydraulics, the slickly choreographed scene changes are fun to watch, and the muted tones of present-day Manhattan and the technicolor, deco-wallpapered living rooms of 1955 create a dramatic, visually engaging contrast.
Maple and Vine doesn't say much that's new about the dark side of nostalgia, but its fresh humor and inventive staging come across as anything but dated. B+
(Tickets: playwrightshorizons.org or 212-564-1235)