To find yourself in the fictional, titular town of Almost, Maine, at 9 p.m. on one fated, frigid Friday night is to find yourself in a state of ubiquitous climax. All at once, things have come to a head, you might say, for nearly 20 of Almost’s residents. Everyone is finding and losing love. Mostly finding.
The atmosphere in which these events happen almost makes the serendipity of their simultaneous occurrence easier to swallow. In the Cellar Theater’s production of Almost, Maine, majestic blue and purple Northern Lights flare and float against an exquisitely painted — if Kinkade-esque — snowy, starlit-woodland backdrop. Mystical, wind-chimey music hovers in the air as spare sets glide into place during dark transitions. Uncanny things could transpire here.
Or “here,” at 9 p.m. on a Friday in Almost, Maine, could be a gimmick, an easy way for actor-playwright John Cariani — whom you may know better as Law & Order’s Julian Beck — to make a handful of predictable, obnoxiously heartwarming vignettes seem more special than most of them would be on their own. Why not just set a box of Golden Retriever puppies onstage?
Almost, Maine — or director Donald Frame’s iteration of it — isn’t entirely bereft of heft. In one vignette, an out-of-towner named Glory (the animated Rachel Joseph, an occasional Current critic) presumptuously makes camp on the lawn of a repairman named East (E.J. Roberts), to await the Northern Lights. The narrative unfolds delicately, with Joseph playing the strange, crazy feline, always on her toes, to Roberts’s cautious house cat. Donning outerwear over his robe, East emerges from his home to bat tentatively, inquisitively, at his uninvited guest. Glory, a bag of nutzo with a bang-up backstory and a brown sack of slate chips that she insists are the pieces of her broken heart, doesn’t mean to incite an impulsive kiss from East. But that is what happens, and it’s just insane enough to ring true. (Her last line is a real groaner, but I digress.)
There are other authentically played and/or well-written (and funny!) moments in Almost, Maine — moments in which the play ceases to be the Love, Actually of the stage — but they are exactly that: moments. In a boardinghouse laundry room, a devastatingly naïve young man (Roberts) has a eureka flash: “People who love each other very much don’t kiss other people and do laundry on a Friday night!” Later, Chad (Matthew Byron Cassi), an ice-fishing, beer-swilling bear of a man, plasters his gloved hand to his mouth, smothering abundant, unsympathetic laughter as his best friend recounts his most disastrous date ever.
It isn’t decent to cozy these genuinely touching dramatic phrases up against, or within, quaint-yet-ham-fisted vignettes — gimmicks within a gimmick — that feel like sappy Playwriting 101 exercises. One, about “losing hope,” actually features a character named Hope who fled her Almost fiancé. Another centers on a doomed couple quarreling on a frozen pond as they hunt for a mislaid shoe, until — oh, yes — it drops from aloft. And what would it be if two star-crossed Mainers didn’t enter into a spontaneous, involuntary fainting match as they “fall” in love? Happy is the docile audience member who can close her mind and open her heart.
I deeply admired the Cellar’s Almost performers — Rainya Shingledecker Mosher, Krystal Kohler, and Mark McCarver, in addition to the above — for valiantly contending with the contrivances of the text, as well as the production’s practical challenges. A mere cast of six is recycled to embody the play’s 19 roles, and because each vignette could fall in very naturally as the peak scene of its own full-length play, the actors are obliged to sustain climax after climax. It’s exhausting for everybody, including the audience. Plus, if a performer fails to distinctly interpret each of his characters — who will, inevitably, namedrop one of his other characters in conversation, eventually — the universe of the play may as well collapse on itself. (And may I say that from a technical standpoint, the Cellar’s is a tidy, cohesive, well-run universe.)
Such catastrophic characterization does once or twice befall this production, but even that is dwarfed by the misfortune of the play choice itself. The folks in the opening-night crowd would doubtless disagree; they seemed to have fun cooing “Aaaaaw!”, and more power to them. Fat with fast-food theater, I wandered out of Almost, Maine, feeling cold and unsatisfied. •