Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2007
Like Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, the show that preceded it on the Theater Barn schedule, Almost, Maine has taken the regional theatre world by storm. EVERYONE has just done it, is doing it, or will do it in the coming months. And like Six Dance Lessons... it is really, really difficult to figure out why. Neither is well written, and Almost, Maine isn’t even a play. Sure, both shows are cheap to stage and are relatively inoffensive, but there are lots and lots of shows which meet those two criteria. Can’t the various folks who plan theatre seasons look further than the latest fad for, oh, I don’t know, a decent script??
And while the Barn’s production of Six Dance Lessons... was far, far better than the material, this production of Almost, Maine is far, far worse, which is pretty pathetic.
John Cariani is not really a playwright, although he has two shows to his credit – this and the more recent Cul de Sac. He is an actor, and by all accounts a good one, with a Tony nomination and an Outer Critics Circle Award for his portrayal of Motel in the 2004 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof. He grew up in Presque Isle, Maine, and Almost, Maine was his response to a world of new plays which he felt were too New York-centric.
Set in eight “episodes” bracketed by a prologue, interlogue, and epilogue, Almost, Maine presents a series of two-character romances which we are told all happen simultaneously at 9 pm on a cold Friday night one winter in the fictional town of Almost, Maine. There is no through plot, and the only things that link the scenes are locale and the thin thread of human relationships.
But all plays are ultimately about human relationships. The thing that makes the good ones interesting is that we get to see those relationships grow, change, implode, explode, etc. over the course of a couple of hours and a couple of acts. Here we are just voyeurs taking a passing peek at nine different couples (all but one are heterosexual.) Kind of like listening in on an old party line telephone, a gadget they probably had until late in the last century in Presque Isle.
Cariani could take a lesson from Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard’s wildly popular Tuna Trilogy – Greater Tuna, A Tuna Christmas, and Red, White, and Tuna. While there are only two actors on stage in any given scene (mainly because there are only two actors in the cast) the Tuna tales paint a complete portrait of the people and places in the third smallest town in the state of Texas. Characters do overlap from one scene to another and you follow little bits of plots through the plays, each of which has some kind of satisfying pay-off.
Here each couple remains isolated in their own “episode” and they barely tell us their names. There seems to be no social, economic, or ethnic diversity which may be an accurate portrait of the average town in northern Maine but which does not make for compelling theatre. And they all dress alike, which I can certainly believe is the case, especially in the dead of winter when layers of neoprene, Gore-tex, polar fleece, and flannel are de rigeur for mere survival, but if I am only going to spend five to fifteen minutes with these characters I need some way to differentiate them. Costume, make-up, etc provide easy clues to personality, and here designers Elyse and Leah Miller completely fail.
Poor casting and stagnant direction by Tony Capone also plays a large role in the overpowering sense of sameness. It took me until intermission and a hard study of the head shots in the lobby to tell actors David Bodenschatz and Joseph Dal Porto apart. They are both slender, good looking, vaguely talented 20-somethings. Because I have seen Eleni Delopoulos before (she is the only Barn vet in the cast) I could tell her and Jessica Lynn Johnson apart, but I realized that my companion, who had never seen either actress, couldn’t. Both are attractive brunettes. Delopoulos is the only stand-out here, and that is mainly because she is a distinct ethnic type with a lanky, loopy sense of physical comedy. Everyone else just stood there.
There are a few sweet and charming moments to be had in this production, but many, many more go unrealized if the reviews of other productions around the country are anything to go by.
Abe Phelps’ set is charmingly simple, giving a real feel for the “midwinter night’s dream” aspect of this play. There are things that happen which are surreal, magical, extraordinary, etc., and the setting combined with Robert Eberle’s colorful lighting design makes you believe that this is a place where these things could happen. If only the writing, acting, and directing lived up to that promise.
It is a great pity that companies and producers encourage the development of these non-plays – in this case the Cape Cod Theater Project and the Portland Stage Company, along with Bulldog Theatrical which, according to Cariani, planned for a New York production long before the offer came from Portland to stage the world premiere. Cariani has not even written a series of viable one-acts, let alone a complete play. The only real use I can think of for these light-weight vignettes would be in high school scene study classes, and again there is much more better-written material available for that purpose as well.
Since Almost, Maine can be performed either by four actors, as it is here, or by nine men and ten women, I predict that it will become wildly popular in the educational theatre world. Actually, a greater diversity of performers would have gone a long way towards improving this production as well.
I have a sneaking suspicion that this will NOT be your last opportunity to see Almost, Maine in this area, and I am quite sure that other productions will be superior. I would recommend that you bide your time and I will let you know when a winner comes along. What a pity what has been thus far an interesting and creative season at the Theater Barn has to end on such a lackluster note.
Almost, Maine runs through September 30 at the Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs an hour and fifty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007