If you think New York is cold in February, try Almost, Maine, John Cariani's 2006 play, now receiving its first off-Broadway revival with Transport Group. The Gym at Judson has been turned into a winter wonderland. The floor is covered wall to wall with something that looks a lot like asbestos but is also vaguely reminiscent of snow. The stage area features a heavy coat of something considerably slicker. It's the kind of synthetic snow spectacle usually only afforded by Russian dictators, and when it begins to fall, lightly dusting the actors' hair, it is truly magical. Still, with all the unrequited love and arctic chill onstage, I'm glad to be on this side of the fourth wall.
Almost, Maine is a series of vignettes set in a fictional town in an "unorganized" territory of northern Maine (somewhere in Aroostook County, not far from the Canadian border). The play opens on Ginette (Kelly McAndrew) and Pete (playwright Cariani), the mysterious couple who likes to sit in silence and watch the snow. There's Glory (the irrepressibly zany Donna Lynne Champlin), the recent widow who camps out to see the northern lights in the backyard of a lonely man named East (Kevin Isola), who quickly falls for her. Jimmy (Cariani) runs into Sandrine (McAndrew) at a local watering hole, hoping to rekindle a lost love...until he finds out she's there for her bachelorette party. That's just the first act!
With a potential cast of 19 and no more than three people in any given scene, it's no wonder that Almost, Maine has become the favorite play for high school drama clubs, in 2010 narrowly inching out Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as the most produced play in North American high schools. You can include a whole bunch of students, but you won't need more than a few rehearsals with each of them. It's also relatively inoffensive (the phrase "Jeezum Crow" is uttered no fewer than six times in lieu of a more blasphemous soundalike), but it still offers myriad opportunities for that first stage kiss. In many ways, Almost, Maine is the ideal play for a high school.
Transport Group doesn't use 19 actors, but four playing multiple roles. Getting an audience to buy into the often extremely contrived situations and characters of vignette plays like Almost, Maine can be a real challenge. Under the surefooted direction of Jack Cummings III this ensemble succeeds wildly, making their characters emotionally vulnerable and believable.
That is why it is so unfortunate that the playwright has a tendency to lower the stakes for comic effect, often just when we're beginning to care about his characters. For example, Jimmy begins to tear up as he reveals to Sandrine, "Spot went and died on me," and we genuinely feel for him, thanks to Cariani's superb acting. Then we find out "Spot" is a fish. Similar dramatically charged moments are often sabotaged by Cariani's fetish for euphemism: Two women, Shelley and Deena, "fall in love" by literally falling into the fake snow when they lock eyes. (This scene is performed in rotating rep with the two men, who play the act as "Chad" and "Randy.") When Marci (Champlin) and Phil (Isola), a couple of old marrieds, finally admit that they no longer enjoy spending time together, a shoe rudely drops from the rafters, interrupting the awful tension stirred by this most compellingly acted scene. Sure, it offers the audience some nice (albeit cheesy) comic relief, but it makes all the Sturm und Drang of the preceding seven minutes seem like a huge waste.
Dissatisfaction is the overwhelming feeling of the evening. While cute, charming, and occasionally moving, Almost, Maine never breaks through to the realm of truly memorable theater...just almost.