Wanted: playwrights who walk the line between unpredictability and implausibility

Jennifer Ruckman as Katha and Robert M. Lee as Ryu in "Maple & Vine." Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

Here I examine five current productions in which the writers freshened material with surprising what-if twists, departing from conventional expectations but also managing to avoid falling into unconvincing or even inchoate fantasylands.

Of course whenever I start writing about "unexpected" developments in narratives, I run the risk of revealing too much. I'll try to restrain myself from telling all, but let that last sentence serve as one comprehensive spoiler alert.

I saw two plays by Jordan Harrison on a recent Saturday - first, "Marjorie Prime" at the Mark Taper Forum, then "Maple & Vine" at Chance Theater in Anaheim.

"Marjorie Prime" imagines a world in which "primes" -- virtual hologram-like replications of dead individuals -- are thoroughly briefed on the backgrounds of the deceased and then allowed to converse with the surviving loved ones. If those survivors are losing their memories, supposedly these conversations will provide a measure of consolation, as well as mental stimulation.

The idea is "Twilight Zone" material, and it works on that level to a limited extent, especially when the last remaining living individual checks out of the play -- and the primes are left to talk among themselves.

Marjorie and her prime are played by octogenarian Lois Smith. As Susan King pointed out in an LA Times interview, it's gratifying to see the two Center Theatre Group spaces at the Music Center occupied by plays featuring women in their '80s -- next door is "The Road to Bountiful," with Cicely Tyson. But Smith isn't the star of "Marjorie Prime" as much as Tyson is of "Bountiful," and most theatergoers will find "Bountiful" a more bountiful experience.

Harrison's other replication-oriented play, "Maple & Vine" at the Chance, is much livelier than "Marjorie Prime." Two Manhattan professionals, young and stressed, decide to escape by moving to a planned community that seeks to strictly duplicate suburban life in the '50s. Complications ensue, especially because they're an Asian/white couple, but also because their mentor has a big secret. The satirical strokes are broad but effective and, often, funny.

The biggest unanswered question is why the Asian-American doctor is assigned to manual labor -- wouldn't such a community want another doctor, no matter his racial background? A few more characters could help flesh out "Maple & Vine," but it certainly achieves a degree of entertaining provocation.

Outrageous comedies often require more suspension of disbelief than other plays, and one of the more common conventions in this genre is the character whose biological parents are mysteriously unknown -- for reasons outside the confidentiality strictures of modern adoptions.

One of the classics in this genre is, of course, Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," in which the identity of Jack's parents is finally revealed after decades, along with a half-dozen other comic strands ingeniously knitted together. Michael Michetti's revival at A Noise Within is currently milking maximum merriment out of Jack's dilemma -- and Wilde's acerbic epigrams. Clad in Garry Lennon's dandified creations, Adam Haas Hunter's Algernon is the most memorable character here, but the others are just as good, if not quite as picturesque.

Adam Haas Hunter as Algernon Moncrieff in "The Importance of Being Earnest." Craig Schwartz.

Another classic that employs the unknown parent/child trope is Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale." Craig Wright's American adaptation of it, "Melissa Arctic," now at the Road Theatre on Magnolia (in NoHo), rewrites the convention as well as the social status of the characters.

They are no longer royalty -- the play is now set in 1970 and 1988 in Minnesota. So the jealous husband is unable to do whatever he wants with his wife's newborn child.

Wright gets away with making the original play's miraculous ending slightly less miraculous. He also adds a few songs -- not enough for this to be considered a musical, but enough to add extra resonance to certain moments. And he personifies the character of Time as a girl who silently watches the human beings huff and puff their way through life.

Director Scott Alan Smith has nurtured mostly vital performances, and the experience is a moving retort to anyone who has been baffled by the original play's jagged edges.

Finally, a word about "Affluence," Steven Peterson's new play at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, staged by Larry Eisenberg. It begins as a rather broad family comedy about the recessionary woes of the affluent, but it then pivots into a psychological suspense thriller. I won't reveal anything else, but the drastic turn in the narrative is not only surprising but also believable, adding extra dimension to the material. My only disappointment is that "Affluence," which won an award from the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild before it was even produced, isn't explicitly set in Beverly Hills.

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