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Couple chucks modern world for '50s in 'Maple & Vine'

| Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, 9:02 p.m.
Nelson Lee and Robin Abramson on the Maple and Vine set at the City Theatre Thursday, October 4, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Nelson Lee and Robin Abramson on the set of Maple and Vine at the City Theatre Thursday, Otober 4, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Part of the floor/set of Maple and Vine at the City Theatre Thursday, October 4, 2012. Heidi Murrin PIttsburgh Tribune-Review
Part of the set (minus more furniture) for the Maple and Vine play at the City Theatre Thursday, October 4, 2012. Heidi Murrin Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
City Theatre Company A model of the set of 'Maple & Vine'

City Theatre Company begins its 2012-13 season with an intriguing question: What would you give up for a chance at happiness and a less complex life: Your iPad? Sushi? Your high-pressure, but meaningless job? What about some of your privacy and civil liberties?

“Maple and Vine,” which begins performances Saturday, poses those questions as it follows the lifestyle choices made by a frazzled professional couple in Manhattan.

Katha, an editor at a high-pressure publishing house, describes the book on Labradoodles she's working on as “the most-urgent coffee-table book of our time.” Her husband, Ryo, is a plastic surgeon whose career has become an unrewarding succession of bags of blood, bags of fat and 15-year-olds who want breast-augmentation surgery.

A chance encounter offers them an off-ramp from their fast-lane misery, when they learn about the Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, a gated, planned community somewhere in the Midwest where it's always 1955.

Residents are assigned jobs and roles within a tightly organized mid-'50s suburban community where an authenticity committee monitors everyone's lives to prevent breaches of time period authenticity — no focaccia, Portobello mushrooms, Lycra or openly gay couples.

“It's a fun, theatrical play. It's delightful to watch this urban, contemporary couple transform and everyone is in love with the period because of ‘Mad Men,' ” says City Theatre artistic director Tracy Brigden, who first saw “Maple and Vine” at Playwrights Horizon in Manhattan last winter.

“What I really love about the play is that it creates a situation for characters that is rich in complicated experiences, but doesn't put a judgment on that,” says Kip Fagan, a Manhattan-based director who is directing his first production at City Theatre. “It's not trying to tell you what to feel about it. … I expect (it will spark) a lot of parking-lot conversations.”

The idea of abandoning contemporary Manhattan's endless possibilities for the more restricted world of a 1950s suburb has a certain appeal, Fagan says. Urban life is chaotic, unpredictable and offers few rules and too many choices.

“Those choices can lead to stifling paralysis,” Fagan says. “When you can do anything, be anything, you can be paralyzed by the number of choices.”

As she read the play, set designer Narelle Sissons connected strongly to that feeling of chaos that comes from too many choices and too little structure.

“Their lives are unmapped out,” says Sissons, who previously designed sets for “The Seafarer” and “Monster in the Hall” at City Theatre and is also associate professor of design at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama. “I think the way the play works in Act I (when they're) in Manhattan, they are not following the lines of a blueprint.”

Sissons decided her set design would provide them with that blueprint and make it the central focus of the stage.

Modifications to the City Theatre seating plan will place the audience on the two long sides of an 80-foot-by-18-foot vinyl blueprint that appears to have been freshly unrolled.

“I loved it when I saw it,” Brigden says. “Most contemporary writers write (plays with) multiple locations. … You have to think of clever ways (to deal with that) so the audience doesn't spend half their time watching scene changes. … We wanted the play to flow, and she found a way to do it without stopping.”

A blueprint for a house is an outline for what a home might be — a starting place for those who live there to build a home and a life for themselves on a daily basis, Sissons says.

Furniture that appears to be randomly and inappropriately scattered in the first act becomes more carefully and traditionally placed as the show progresses.

”In Act II, the furniture sits in rooms like the way it would in the 1950s, following conventions in a way of life,” Sissons says. “In essence, it ended as a metaphoric idea about everybody's lives.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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