Tuesday, February 25, 2014

231. Review of ALMOST, MAINE (February 22, 2014)


John Cariani’s ALMOST, MAINE, originally given a brief run locally in 2006, has returned after more than half-a-dozen years in which it became the most produced play nationally, especially in high school productions where it has surpassed A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Mr. Cariani’s play, composed of nine vignettes about the joys and sorrows of love, is set, according to the program, in “Various locales in Almost, Maine, a small town in northern Maine that doesn’t quite exist.” The time is “nine o’clock on a cold, clear, moonless, slightly surreal Friday night in the middle of the deepest part of a northern Maine winter.”  ALMOST, MAINE is a sweet, simple, and slightly fantastical play about the vagaries of love. I find it a bit too twee for my tastes, but my theatre guest—an actress and acting teacher—fell completely under its spell, both for its writing and performance. The whimsically romantic, mostly lighthearted, and often comic piece, now playing at the Judson Gym in a Transport Group production nicely staged by Jack Cummings III, makes the most of an estimable four-member ensemble composed of Mr. Cariani, Donna Lynne Champlin, Kevin Isola, and Kelly McAndrew.

John Cariani, Kelly McAndrew. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
            The seats in the expansive, rectangular Judson Gym are placed along one of the long sides, with the entire loft-like space opposite employed by designer Sandra Goldmark for the multiple scenes; here and there are scattered the various simple scenic props needed to localize the individual vignettes during the two hour, one intermission, piece: a saloon table and two chairs, an ironing board, a log, a beer cooler, whatever. The upstage wall is that of the space itself, exposed pipes and all, and the floor is entirely covered with fake snow, even for the few interior scenes. The four actors play a total of 21 characters, with only those of Ginette (Ms. McAndrew) and Pete (Mr. Cariani) seen in more than one scene, although connections are sometimes made between characters in the various scenes. Although there probably are rhythmic and emotional balances that might be disturbed, my sense is that most scenes can be cut, or—except for the strategic placement of the Ginette-Pete scenes—rearranged at a director’s discretion. If I had my druthers, I’d like to see the piece shortened by one or two scenes, but I wouldn’t dare suggest which, and am sure the mere mention of such tinkering will have the play’s fans clamoring for my throat. By the way, each scene has its own title (“Her Heart,” “Sad and Glad,” “This Hurts,” and so on), but you have to wait until the performance is over to know this, since no programs are distributed until you’re on your way out.

Kevin Isola, Donna Lynne Champlin. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

            Rows of identical hanging glass lamps capable of changing their interior colors (designed by R. Lee Kennedy) serve as the night sky for this part of Maine, where the Northern Lights are sometimes visible, and rhythmically compelling music by Tom Kochan ties one scene to another, contributing greatly to the atmosphere. Since it’s the dead of winter Kathryn Rohe’s costumes are mostly in the colorful parka and snow suit genre; there’s a charming scene when lovers played by Ms. Champlin and Mr. Cariani find themselves getting aroused and begin to rapidly peel off their clothes, a scene that, amusingly, goes on and on because of all the layers each is wearing.  Although sexual attraction is a core component of some scenes, there’s no nudity and little that’s verbally crude, so high school teachers shouldn’t be overly concerned about the appropriateness of the material for student actors. A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM is much raunchier.

            Since most characters appear only in one scene and then are gone forever, and since the scenes are self-contained, the play is held together mainly by thematic strings, not an overarching plotline; the characters are essentially sketches designed to be filled in by the actors’ personalities. Some of them seem almost interchangeable, and the actors do little to vary their personalities or appearances to play them. We learn who they are from the circumstances, not from something visual about them that quickly gives away their natures. In general, Mr. Cariani is somewhat goofy and self-deprecating, Ms. Champlin is perky and upbeat, Mr. Isola is quiet and unassuming, and Ms. McAndrew is pretty and on the sensitive side. The writing and acting immediately go to the core of what’s happening in any scene, not unlike Caryl Churchill’s much more technically complex LOVE AND INFORMATION, recently reviewed here. These scenes, though, are nevertheless more fully developed than those in Churchill’s play, and we get a far greater sense of who Mr. Cariani’s people are, even if they remain largely outlines.

            As an example of Mr. Cariani’s sense of romantic whimsy, we might consider the scene called “Her Heart.” Glory (Ms. Champlin), a woman who has set up her tent in the yard of East (Kevin Isola), thinking it okay to do so without first asking permission because of what she’s heard of the hospitality of Maine’s people. She wants to view the Northern Lights as a way to apologize to her late husband, whom she thinks died because she rejected him after having an artificial heart implanted. She carries with her in a paper lunch bag her real heart, which broke into 19 pieces, and, before the scene is over, East has rapidly fallen in love with her and, being a repairman, promises to mend her broken heart.

A more farcically direct scene is “This Hurts,” in which Steve (Mr. Cariani) is a man who can feel no pain (he has “hereditary analgesia”), which leads to some broad physical humor when Marvalyn (Ms. Champlin), staying at the same boarding house and doing her laundry, accidentally bangs him in the head with her ironing board. He keeps a list supplied by his brother of what to be afraid of and what might hurt him, but before long he finds himself falling in love, at which point his response to another smack in the head lresults in the first real pain he’s ever felt.

            Other scenes show a lonely guy at a bar (Mr. Cariani) who runs into the girl (Ms. McAndrew) who left him and whose efforts to hook up with her again go flat when she reveals she’s there to celebrate her bachelorette party before she marries her new boyfriend; a woman (Ms. McAndrew) who unloads pillowcases filled with fluff at her ex’s (Mr. Isola) place, these representing all the love he gave her, which she’s now returning, in return for which she asks for her love back; a woman (Ms. Champlin) who tells her best friend (Ms. McAndrew) of being rejected by her boyfriend because of the way she smelled, leading to a lesbian encounter, and to the pair’s subsequent inability to keep from falling down; and so on.

            The work has much to commend it but is somehow incompletely satisfying. Like its title, it’s not quite there, just almost.