When Almost, Maine closed at the Daryl Roth Theatre after a month-long run off-Broadway in 2006, playwright John Cariani licked his wounds and went back to his first job: acting. Little did he know that his sweet, 19-character play about the romantic goings on during a cold night in Maine would go on to have a life around the world.
"The whole story of the play has been unlike anything I expected," Cariani, a Tony nominee for his gig as Motel the tailor in the 2004 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, says. "We went from kind of quietly going away and not being much of anything to slowly becoming this little phenomenon. That [is] probably one of the most exciting things that's ever happened to me.
In 2010, Almost, Maine beat Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream for the top spot on the list of the most produced plays in North American high schools. Since then, it has been a regular fixture on that list, published yearly by Dramatics magazine, beating out reliable classics like The Crucible and Our Town. There are currently over 170 nonprofessional productions across America scheduled for 2014, according to Dramatists Play Service, not to mention upcoming stagings in Moscow, South Korea, and Belgium. And, running through February 23, is the play's first major New York revival, courtesy of director Jack Cummings III and The Transport Group.
"I honestly thought, after the New York [run] in 2006, this must not be very good," Cariani notes in midst of tech rehearsals for the revival, in which he, as an actor, costars. "I didn't think too much of it — I'm not really a playwright, I'm an actor — so I went back to work as an actor." And then the licensing organization Dramatists Play Service got involved. "One of the guys [at DPS] told me they had high hopes for it. I said 'Why?' I guess I learned why."
The Transport Group production, being staged at their frequent home, The Gym at Judson, came about over a meal. "Jack [Cummings III] had talked to me about his upcoming season and he said that he was considering Almost, Maine. I said, 'What are you talking about? We just did it.' He said, 'It's actually been eight years.' [Jack] felt that no one in New York knew what it was. He wanted to reintroduce it to the New York audience."
With the exception of an added scene, Almost, Maine is being presented the same way it was in 2006 and can currently be seen across the world. "I developed it for a long, long time, so it holds together pretty nicely," Cariani says. Wearing his actor hat, though, has become the real test. "A long time ago, when we were developing it, I would do things from it with my friends. Now that it's been a long time, it's like approaching every other play. [Cast member] Donna Lynne [Champlin] keeps saying, 'I can't believe you can't learn your lines.' I'm an actor. I'm trying to learn the trajectory of the story just like you are."
As a curious author, Cariani admits to having seen productions across the country. "I learned my lesson, too," he notes with a laugh. "I've seen some really awful ones and I've seen some that are truly outstanding. Geva Theater and Syracuse Stage did a coproduction that was really extraordinary. I feel like that's the one that kind of, I don't know, gave it credibility." But it's South Korea's production that made him the most surprised. "I'm not surprised about Finland and Norway and Russia, because those are cold places, so they get the play. [In South Korea] they're nuts about American theater and I had no idea."
Ultimately, the Almost, Maine experience has blossomed into something that's beyond its author's wildest expectations. "I had this whole plan of what I wanted it to be — a huge hit in New York and transfer, something crazy like that — and what it became is so much more than I thought it could be. It's like Hamlet says to Horatio: 'There are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'"