Almost, Maine at 710 Main
by ANTHONY CHASE
I knew John Cariani as a Broadway actor. In New York City, I had often encountered him at awards ceremonies and fundraising events. I’ve seen him as the tailor Motel Kamzoil in Fiddler on the Roof; as Nigel Bottom in Something Rotten; and as Itzik in The Band’s Visit. He’s a charming and funny man who was always friendly and happy to talk about his shows.
Somewhere along the line, someone told me that he was the same “John Cariani” who had written Almost, Maine. I found this unlikely.
Almost, Maine, is an evening of nine vignettes about love, set in a part of Maine so rural that it’s not incorporated as a town – it’s “Almost” a town. In Maine.
Each scene is an interaction between two people talking about love.
After a hit debut in Portland, Maine, the show opened off-Broadway in 2006 to mixed reviews and closed rather quickly.
What might have been too sweet and innocent for the sophisticated and urbane "New York Times," however, proved to have appeal to audiences across the country. People loved it. They loved it a lot. In just a few years Almost, Maine had supplanted Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Thornton Wilder's Our Town as the most popularly produced play at American high schools.
Well, it turns out that John Cariani, the affable and talented actor, and John Cariani, one of America’s most successful emerging playwrights are, indeed, one and the same person.
I was well aware of Almost, Maine, but I had never seen it, until last night. Like the rest of America, I also loved it.
Road Last Traveled opened their production of the play at Shea’s 710 Main Theatre last night. Doug Weyand has directed a cast of four actors who play 18 characters.
The concept of the show, couples prattling about love, along with the show’s high school pedigree, did not sound promising to me. I was expecting a very special presentation from Hallmark, opening on Valentine’s Day, no less. I am happy to report, that is not what I saw.
The topic is undeniably sweet and entirely appropriate for Valentine’s Day, but the execution is rather kooky and sometimes downright surreal, with little sweeps of magical reality tossed in. Almost, Maine is a deceptively insightful look at human nature, at love, at regret, at loss, and passion and foolishness. While the play is simple, Cariani does not flinch from bold theatrical gestures and flights of imagination, none of which I will reveal here, as surprise and improbability are what propel much of the fun of this very fun evening.
To begin, the direction by Doug Weyand, who has a proven track record of propelling actors through space effectively, purposefully, and gracefully, is excellent. Under his guidance, the ensemble of four mines the material for every laugh, every sigh, and every glorious groan of recognition.
We are treated to another marvelous environment by very talented set designer Lynne Koscielniak who again manages to fill the space of 710 Main Theatre with eye-popping enchantment. A winter night in Almost, Maine, with surreal snow drifts and the Northern Lights looming overhead. The vast and empty central playing area becomes a magic space into which Weyand can reconfigure his actors, sometimes sending them out into the aisles in ways that enhance our sense of place.
Light by John Rickus makes the arctic gloriousness of Koscielniak’s set pop. Maura Price’s costumes are a tour de force of whimsical character explorations and fast changes.
Finally, the actors themselves, an A-list foursome of talent: Eve Everette, Wendy Hall, John Kreuzer, and Nick Lama, gamely hurl themselves into the playful challenges of this material without flinching.
I took particular pleasure in the performance of Everette who was lucky to be gifted with some of the more memorable characters, including two women who regret having turned love away – but never in a manner you might predict. Her deadpan delivery of shocking revelations is priceless.
Hall sportingly takes on an oddball array of women for whom love is confusing and does not come easily, as well as a luscious scene in which she accidentally bumps into a boyfriend she dumped (played by Kreuzer), and in the play’s most iconic and surreal vignette, involving a woman who seeks the return of the love she has so unwisely given – literally. (And I do mean literally). Hall imbues these women with palpable sincerity that serves to heighten the comic absurdity of their predicaments.
John Kreuzer is a born clown who can rest his face into endearing and comical lovelorn catatonia. I especially enjoyed his range of men who yearn deeply for love, but for whom love is just not working out. In one scene, his wife (played by Everette) complains that he is inattentive and devoid of romance. He wins the audience with an exasperation that he never quite expresses, and brooding anger that he never quite realizes. He is also winning in the one same sex scene, in his reactions when he best friend comes to an uncomfortable realization.
Nicholas Lama, who has forged innocent cluelessness into an art form, shows us a range of men who do not understand when love arrives. The most literal of these is a scene with Everette in which he plays a man incapable of feeling physical pain. He also portrays a man with a gift for saying precisely the wrong thing at the critical romantic moment. In contrast, he also plays the man at the door in a scene that is almost a monologue for Everette, a performance that requires mystery, but also packs a surprising stab. Lama plays all of these with clear genuineness. Look for him to evoke audience reactions merely for holding a snowball.
I think this is the gift of the entire ensemble, to find the complexity and the humanity in situations that on their surface, seem simple and obvious.
As an early work by a very gifted playwright, it is not surprising that some scenes seem overwritten and a little repetitive. As one of my editor companions at the opening night observed, we are occasionally given too much time to predict punchlines before they happen. I do concur. But a little extraneous length does not diminish the pleasure of the evening, in a most handsome production of a most appealing play. If I were giving stars, I would grant Almost, Maine almost a five.