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Almost, Maine

John Cariani's portrait of rural life is sticky sweet and whimsical, but it does have some substance.

By New York City
Justin Hagan and Miriam Shor in Almost, Maine
Photo © Joan Marcus
Justin Hagan and Miriam Shor in Almost, Maine
Photo © Joan Marcus
According to Almost, Maine, a sticky-sweet confection from actor/playwright John Cariani, people do things a lot differently in northern Maine than they do in Manhattan. Everybody goes to the same bar, where one has a good chance of bumping into a former sweetheart. The young ladies who leave the state to pursue a higher education often regret leaving behind the nice young men who wanted to marry them. Heck, the folks living in some parts of Maine don't even get around to naming their towns!

As a portrait of rural life, this play is no Winesburg, Ohio, but it does contain a certain amount of substance, wit, and intelligence. The action of all nine vignettes that make up the piece begins at 9pm on a winter's Friday night, as the townsfolk fall in and out of love with each other. In one of the funniest sketches, a simple young man named Steve is sitting in a laundry room and scribbling in a notebook marked "Things That Hurt" when fellow laundry-doer Marvalyn accidentally smacks him with an ironing board. Unfazed, he tells her that he was born with underdeveloped nerve endings and therefore has to record hazardous situations for his own protection. Believe it or not, this conversation turns to serious questions of love and religion.

Cariani's magical realistic tone is often quite appealing; missing shoes literally fall from the heavens, and so on. But, eventually, the audience's tolerance for whimsy is pushed to the limit. Part of the problem is the play's two-hour running time, too long for what is ultimately a series of barely connected sketches. An even larger concern is the author's tendency to be folksy at the expense of dramatic integrity. In one blinkered scene, a married couple with two children decides to call it quits after an unhappy anniversary; the wife drives away, leaving her husband stranded at the skating rink, but he's too busy wistfully contemplating the mysteries of the universe to notice that she's gone.

Four actors are called upon to play the show's 19 different roles. Miriam Shor, who managed to convince people that she was rock-and-roll hunk Yitzhak in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, once more proves her chameleonic abilitiies and even gets to do the gender-bending shtick again as the decidedly masculine Rhonda. Todd Cerveris plays a series of naïfs with charm to spare, while Justin Hagan is grounded in his roles. Only Finnerty Steeves overdoes her characters' sitcom-style quirkiness.

All elements of the staging are designed to warm cynical urban hearts. James Youmans' scenery consists of a wooden promenade surrounded by mounds of snow; Jeff Croiter's effective lighting shines the starry landscape at the audience; and Julian Fleisher punctuates inspirational scenes with syrupy music. Director Gabriel Barre's pacing leaves a little too much time for Kodak moments, but if you're looking to take a flight of fancy, you may want to visit Almost, Maine.


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