By Martin Morse Wooster: I once read an article about a guy who was determined to live life in 1912. He lived in a shack in the woods, bought a lot of old clothes, a Victrola, and a slew of old books and magazines. I don’t remember how he made a living, but the article made clear that he was happy.
We’ve all had the dream that this guy had. That’s why we read historical fiction. But what could happen if you could escape to the past in real life? That’s the premise of Maple and Vine, a 2011 play by Jordan Harrison that I saw at the Spooky Action Theatre in Washington last weekend.
Harrison is an experienced and competent playwright who has written 11 plays and also served as a writer/producer on “Orange Is the New Black” for three seasons. His play Marjorie Prime was made into an interesting art house sf movie. (Here is the trailer.)
Maple and Vine is a play that is both watchable and which doesn’t work.
In Maple and Vine, we meet Ryu, an Asian-American plastic surgeon who makes his living “inserting goo into people,” and Katha, an editor who is struggling to finish her book about labradoodles. They live in a tiny apartment in Manhattan and don’t get much sleep because every night at 2 AM their neighbors yell at each other.
But one day Ryu meets Dean, a Jon Hamm lookalike with a flashy wide tie who recruits them for the SDO, an organization that lives life like it’s always 1955. The men make four-figure salaries but that’s enough to take care of their families. They don’t have to worry about social media because there’s no Internet and entertainment comes from three black and white channels on the TV or socializing with neighbors and playing charades. Katha doesn’t work but can change her name to Kathy. But she learns how to make complicated recipes that require several hours of cooking. The climax of Act I is when two milk bottles were delivered by …the milkman!
In the second act, things break down, as two characters reveal a secret and Ryu faces bigotry because he’s Asian.
The question is: how do we get to 1955 World? Is it in our dimension? Could the world be connected to ours the way the two dimensions are in China Mieville’s The City and The City, with barriers like customs barriers?
Harrison doesn’t answer the question. It is assumed that one can walk in and out of 1955 World as easily as we can walk across the street. Does that mean the currency which pays workers their four figure salaries is the same as ours?
A bigger problem is with medicine. The “authenticity committee” in 1955 World is like a government, and the committee has concluded that the Pill is unacceptable because it didn’t become common until 1960. Well, what happens is someone in 1955 World gets breast cancer? Would they be denied the use of Herceptin because using it would be historically inaccurate?
We can talk all day about the boundary between sf and the mainstream but one difference is that when mainstream people use sf devices, they throw away the logic and rationales that make an imaginary world plausible. Ryan George has a recurring gag where the producer points out some logical implausibility in the script and the writer’s response is “shut up.” That’s not a way for an author to persuade a reader to believe in the world they’ve created..
The recent film Don’t Worry Darling has problems similar to Maple and Vine. Olivia Wilde is a competent director who got good performances out of Florence Pugh, Chris Pine, and (90 percent of the time) Harry Styles. But the sf premises of the film don’t work. The film could have been fixed in a way that would strengthen the feminist points Wilde wanted to make and spare the viewer from saying, “Now that doesn’t make any sense.”
I once read a New Yorker story by Jess Row about America two years after all the electricity had gone out. So why did the electricity disappear? Row says something like his future “wasn’t science fiction. It was reality.” No, Mr. Row, you’re writing sf and you cheat the reader when you throw logic out the window writing your story
I was glad I saw Maple and Vine, which had a good cast led by Amanda Tudor as a matriarch trying to hold 1955 World together. But what the failure of Maple and Vine shows us is when the reader/viewer stops listening to what you’re saying and starts thinking about why the world you’ve created makes no sense, the author has abandoned her powers to persuade.
P.S. One detail I liked in Maple and Vine: there’s a long scene in the first act where Harrison only wants to give the highlights. So, when he wants to “fast forward,” strobe lights go on and we see the equivalent of someone pushing the fast forward button on a DVD. I thought this was an interesting effect.