During Almost, Maine‘s intermission, a song by the play’s composer, Julian Fleisher, plays several times. Fleisher grazes an acoustic guitar’s strings and murmurs, “Well, China must be out of rice/Cats must all be friends with mice/And hell is surely serving ice/’Cause I think I just fell in love and it’s nice.” Almost, Maine to its advantage and detriment is unfailingly, unflappably nice. (So, we are told, is Maine.) In John Cariani’s sequence of loosely linked vignettes, blushes are spared, virtue rewarded, and scenes resolved in the most apposite fashion. Even the scene changes are pleasant.
On James Youman’s genial set, a convex oval of starry sky wheels above a frost-coated platform. On and around that platform, a quartet of actors—endlessly swathed in winter garb yet remaining remarkably sweat-free beneath the stage lights—fall in and out of love, often quite literally. Underneath all those goose-down coats, wool sweaters, and long-underwear sets, Maine blood runs pretty hot—and fast. Following a brief prologue, a meet-cute between a remorseful widow and a repairman hurries into a run-in with an engaged ex at the Moose Paddy Bar and shifts again into a laundry room where a lonely young woman knocks sense into a young man who boasts a systemic analgesia rendering him oblivious to pain. (We think it’s called Xanax.)
As a map included in the program shows, Almost is in the northern part of the state, somewhere west of Caribou and south of Eagle Lake. East, the repairman character of the first scene, explains it a bit differently: “You’re in unorganized territory,” he tells the not-so-merry widow. “It’s not an actual town, technically. To be a town you have to get organized and we just never got around to it, so we’re Almost.”
East’s rubric might also apply to plays, this one particularly. Playwright Cariani doesn’t concern himself overmuch with the niceties of structure or plot, preferring to stick loosely sketched characters in a quirky situation and scurry on to the next scenario before the slim concept exhausts itself. Cariani should trust himself to allow characters to linger onstage long enough to grow or change—or at least take off their snowsuits—rather than offering so many short, static events. Indeed, you may find yourself identifying most with the two stagehands. Though their hooded parkas yeti-fy them and obscure their faces, they remain the same characters throughout and silently endeavor to flirt, argue, and sweetly reunite—all while ably moving the furniture.
Though Maine is not a notable producer of molasses or maple syrup, there’s a scurf of sugariness—sometimes cloying, sometimes merely sweet—coating the scenes. Cariani favors a gentle absurdism, which transforms the airy and abstract into the material and literal. When a woman’s heart breaks, it splinters into 19 pieces; a woman keeps her boyfriend’s love in an array of bulging red laundry bags; and when a couple waits for the other shoe to drop, they are nearly clouted with it. Cariani also approves of dialogue and situations in which characters reveal their innate decency. When a woman protests that her boyfriend didn’t have to give her a ring, he replies, “Yeah I did. It was time. And it’s honorable.” And even in the tumult of romantic rejection, a suitor only suggests, “I gave you a kiss. Why don’t you just give me one back? It’s the polite thing to do.”
All this cleverness and courtesy alternates with plenty of state-specific comedy. Snowmobiles and winterized porches feature prominently. When a tourist abashedly remarks that she thought everyone from Maine was a lobsterman, the local lets her know that, as they’re 100 miles from the shore, it would mean a hell of a commute. And a heating and cooling contractor tells the woman who left him, “Mom and Dad retired. Headed south. To Vermont.”
Unlike the retirees, the four actors are heartily committed to Almost, Maine. Todd Cerveris attacks his roles with a stolid good humor; Justin Hagan lends lanky benevolence to his. While Finnerty Steeves maintains a breathless, almost asthmatic, tempo, Miriam Shor shifts between abstracted winsomeness and bluff comedy. Not all the pairings work equally well. Shor enjoys her best scenes, “Sad and Glad” and “Seeing the Thing,” with Hagan; Cerveris and Steeves make a fine couple in “Getting It Back” and “Story of Hope.” Of the four, Shor varies her look and tone most ably, but were there an award for conveying sentiment while huddled beneath untold layers of L.L. Bean (courtesy of costume designer Pamela Scofield), each would prove a worthy nominee.
Any play about Maine demands a fine director. The state’s motto is, after all, “Dirigo,” meaning “I lead.” Certainly Gabriel Barre shovels these snowmen and -women expertly about the stage. He choreographs the scenes and transitions with equal care, dolloping the action with light and sound effects where needed, though relying overmuch on the portentous slow fade. While he doesn’t mitigate the preciousness of Cariani’s script, he affords each scene a specific and straightforward realization. And he does offer one scene of sparkling physical comedy, in which sweet-tempered Dave (Hagan) and butch Rhonda (Shor), overcome with passion, give themselves over to the screechy press of snowsuit on snowsuit and the frantic stripping of long johns. Now that’s a Maine squeeze.