Plays don’t get any more magical, nor any more unabashedly romantic (with just enough salt to keep things from getting sappy) than John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, the record-breaking Most Produced Flop in off-Broadway history, now getting what well may be its first fully-cast professional Los Angeles production since its 2006 New York debut—and an absolutely wonderful one at that.
No one could have predicted when Almost, Maine closed one month to the day after its NYC opening that Cariani’s nine romantic vignettes, all taking place at exactly the same time on exactly the same night in exactly the same small Maine town about as far north as Maine towns get, would inspire over 2500 productions in the U.S. alone, including one in 2008 at the Colony that this reviewer (for some unfathomable reason) failed to catch.
That the Colony production—like its off-Broadway incarnation and many of those that followed—featured a cast of four actors and the one now playing at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre stars a grand total of nineteen is one, though far from the only, reason for the record-breaking success of Almost, Maine—a play economical enough to appeal to budget-conscious professional theaters and rich enough in roles to make it a community and school theater favorite.
Los Angeles’s 99-Seat Theatre Plan allows for the best of both theatrical worlds, a professionally-produced revival in which each of its nineteen working actors is allowed to put a unique, indelible stamp on his or her role.
Of course, none of these practical considerations would matter a whit were Almost, Maine not as mesmerizingly magical as Cariani has written it or as irresistibly played as it is by the actors who bring his eighteen quirky Northern Mainers (and one out-of-state visitor) to enchanting life at the Hudson.
To reveal more than the simple fact that each of Almost, Maine’s eight scenes—and the prologue-interlogue-epilogue that links them—involves two opposite–sex characters (with a couple of notable exceptions) would be to give away far too many secrets and spoil far too many surprises.
Suffice it to say that the world in which Cariani’s characters live is one in which a heart can actually be broken into pieces of slate, bags can be quite literally filled with love, falling in love can be an honest-to-goodness physical thing, and Hope’s loss can have real physical consequences. It’s a world in which a misspelled tattoo may be the result not of illiteracy but of something more profound, one in which an object can fall miraculously from the sky, and one in which the shortest distance between two objects can also be the longest. And if the latter is a bona fide scientific fact, just as congenital analgesia (the inability to feel physical pain) is a real if rare medical phenomenon, it doesn’t make Cariani’s use of them any less magical.
Set anywhere other than Northern Maine, where folks are (in the words of the playwright) “ordinary people” who “take time to wonder about things, … [to] speak simply, honestly, truly, and from the heart, [and who] are never precious about what they say or do,” Almost, Maine might actually leave (as New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood so bitchily put it) “the cloying aftertaste of an overly sweetened Sno-Cone.” (Sorry, Charlie, but you got it wrong on this one.) Fortunately, none of Cariani’s characters are the least bit cloying, and any aftertaste they leave is one of pure enchantment.
Add to this the fact that each of Almost, Maine’s eight scenes (with the exception of its prologue) ends up almost resolved, but not quite, leaving it up to us to complete each one as our romantic or not so romantic natures see fit, and I don’t see how anyone but a Grinch could fail to fall under Cariani’s play’s magic spell.
It helps too that Almost, Maine is set in the land of the Northern Lights, since magic is, if not in the air, at least in the midnight sky.
Not having seen a four-actor Almost, Maine, I can’t comment on whether seeing the same foursome playing all nineteen roles would have the effect of enhancing the play or turn it into more “actors’ showcase” than anything else.
There is definitely something to be said for assigning a particular (and preferably just-right) performer to each and every role, especially when casting choices end up as inspired (and ethnically diverse) as those made by expert director Martin Papazian and producers Christopher Amitrano and Peter Breitmayer.
Cameron Fife and Laura Marie Steigers exhibit a sweetness and purity as Pete and Ginette in Almost, Maine’s “Prologue” that sets the evening’s realistic yet whimsical tone.
“Her Heart” features the charming duo of Papazian and Natalie Avital as local repairman East and Glory, the hiker he just happens to find on his doorstep. Alex Désert’s heating-cooling guy Jimmy anchors a beautifully played “Sad And Glad” opposite Tyne Stecklein as his stunning ex Sandrine and Misa Moosekian as the spunky waitress who serves free drinks to the lovelorn. Presciliana Esparolini’s peppy Maravalyn and Devin Crittenden’s utterly adorable Steve make “This Hurts” one of the evening’s most delightful and touching scenes. As longtime unmarried (and still unengaged) lovers Gayle and Lendall, Samantha Sloyan and Breitmayer, both simply marvelous, bring Act One to a powerful emotional close in “Getting It Back.”
The good ol’ boys brought to life by the pitch-perfectly macho pair of Travis Myers and John Lacy as Chad and Randy had this reviewer falling for the short but oh-so-sweet “They Fell.” Allison Tolman and Dan Warner dig deep into Marci and Phil in “Where It Went,” the evening’s most heartbreaking segment. A stunning Marina Benedict and a smartly underplaying Steve Fite bring a decade of pain to “Story Of Hope” as a woman who has journeyed far from Almost and a man who has not. “Seeing The Thing” completes the evening (or almost so) with a butch-perfect Nell Teare as guys’ gal Rhonda opposite a simply splendid Lester Purry as her hopelessly besotted fellow snowmobiler.
Audience members eager to know anything more than the abovementioned actors’ names or their favorite quotes will unfortunately find their curiosity unsatisfied by a program that features neither de rigueur bios nor headshots, nor does it indicate character names or who in the cast is a member of Actors Equity, a disservice to both performers and spectators that will hopefully soon be rectified, particularly given the cast’s extensive résumés revealed by a bit of post-performance googling.
Production designer Joseph Hodges has created a magical white-on-black world whose night sky sparkles with countless stars in a gorgeous multi-local set, and though scene changes could stand some speeding up, sound designer Shaun Duke Jr. thankfully provides just the right moody musical underscoring as actors maneuver set pieces between scenes in addition to supplying requisite sound effects throughout. Derrick McDaniel’s lighting is one of the accomplished designer’s best, with Maine’s Northern Lights offering up a recurring “light” motif throughout. Brittnay Davidson’s character/climate-perfect costumes and myriad of props complete the production design to perfection.
Forrest Lancaster is stage manager.
I might not ever want to visit a part of the country where the average January temperature falls to nine degrees Fahrenheit, the average annual snowfall reaches 115 inches, and days last less than nine hours at the Winter Solstice, but I couldn’t have been more captivated by the two hours I spent last night in Almost, Maine.
Hudson Mainstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
December 5, 2014
Photos: Dan Warner Photography