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Almost, Maine
by Rob Kendt

©2006 Joan Marcus
Todd Cerveris & Finnerty Steeves
in Almost, Maine
Maybe it's because they're conserving their energy for the long winter, or because the many layers of clothing restrict their movement, but Mainers are probably the most congenitally easygoing, unfazeable people in the continental U.S. They don't rile easy. But don't mistake the icy exterior for emotional shutdown. In John Cariani's utterly endearing new anthology play Almost, Maine, characters in love have to run their engines a while to get going, but the warmth is no less palpable for being so closely guarded.

In the show's prologue, two bundled-up sweethearts (Todd Cerveris, Finnerty Steeves) sit quietly on a gently swinging park bench by a snow bank and haltingly confess their feelings. He is more or less firmly planted, while she has the sort of querulous nervous energy that marries fidgeting and shivering (and puts one in mind of the author himself, a jittery comic actor who starred as Motel in Fiddler on the Roof). These two are the only characters who recur, though in the sketch-length scenes that follow, the northern town of Almost--as one local explains, "not an actual town" because "we never got around to getting organized"--acquires a sense of place, of casually but tightly interlaced lives, as distinct as Lake Wobegon or Cicely, Alaska.

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Each scene has a couple meet, flirt, bicker, or reunite; most exchanges contain a kiss, and most conclude happily, or at least hopefully. There's a faint dusting of snowbound magical realism. In one scene, Steeves plays a woman who claims to carry her heart in a bag since it froze and splintered into slate; she also believes that the Northern Lights are torches borne by the dead as they shuffle off this mortal coil. Steeves and Cerveris later square off as a couple with a quantifiable inventory of love given and received. In a particularly droll, well-timed bit, Cerveris and Justin Hagan show that falling in love can be painfully literal. And in the show's bitterest scene, Hagan and Miriam Shor are a married couple who've lost their sense of fun, along with one pesky missing shoe.

©2006 Joan Marcus
Justin Hagan & Miriam Shor in Almost, Maine
At times the light, whimsical tone threatens to become precious. One scene has a man who can't feel pain (Cerveris) bond with a woman in an abusive relationship (Shor). But there's subtext and sneaky feeling under the jokey surfaces here. Cariani can milk the laughs all he wants, and he certainly doesn't flinch from sentiment, but he graciously leaves just enough unwritten, buried, or hinted at to make us lean in and fill in the blanks. Notes of melancholy and despair ring plangently, if not very deeply, over the snow banks. Steeves plays a city-fied refugee, returned too late to reclaim a rejected Cerveris, and in one early scene Hagan sketches a matter-of-factly sad loser who's like a walking country song: His dog died, his woman left him, and he's got a misspelled tattoo on his arm to show for it.

The marvelous four-member cast, directed by Gabriel Barre, does crisp, laconic work that's as impressive for its consistency as for its range. While populating an entire town of people with distinct and various emotional states, the actors manage to evoke a specific ambience--a particular temperature, if you will. James Youmans' storybook-simple set may have something to do with this, as do Pamela Scofield's unflashy, spot-on costumes and Julian Fleisher's folksy original music. No mistake, Almost, Maine is conspicuously engineered to be a crowd pleaser, right down to the cutesy scene-change antics of a pair of stagehands in parkas. But it's hard not to warm up to a show in which the most aggressive, malevolent gesture in sight is when one character petulantly slams a snowmobile helmet against another.

Almost, Maine
By John Cariani
Directed by Gabriel Barre
Daryl Roth Theatre

Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 1/12/2006 5:50:00 PM


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