By Vicki Paris Goodman
The dozen or so vignettes included in Almost, Maine possess a common thread. Each begins with an unsettling, even bizarre, human predicament and resolves in a lightly comical tug at the heartstrings. Notwithstanding the annoying repetition inherent in each segment’s opening dialogue, it is amazing how quickly playwright John Cariani convinces us to buy in, but only if we are hopeless romantics like him. If not, we might tire of the simplicity and want something more or something else.
To this extent, Almost, Maine probably has limited appeal. After all, how can a writer sufficiently develop two or three characters, establish a viable story line, and appeal to our emotions in eight or ten minutes– the length of one of Cariani’s oddly romantic segments? The answer is that he can’t. Instead Cariani cuts to the chase and focuses like a laser beam on the circumstance at hand, abandoning the usual background information that would otherwise inform the audience on complexities of character and surroundings. And somehow it all works. At least, it did for me.
Think allegorical simplicity and you’ll start to see what I mean. Cariani’s are composite characters in a symbolic town. They are characterized by an almost childlike unsophistication but display adult wants and needs. In a nutshell, they possess universal hopes and dreams. They want to love and be loved.
In surreal, almost O. Henry-like twists on reality, six actors play nineteen different characters who, more than anything else, help each other through acts of kindness. Awkward romantic encounters expose human fallibility that sometimes borders on the ridiculous. But in every case, director Phyllis Gitlin and her perceptive cast cut deep and successfully project the emotion that becomes ours, as well.
Cariani’s characters have consciences, an attribute which goes a long way toward making us care for them, even given the paltry few minutes we are given to get to know them. On the eve of her wedding to another man, a woman finds a way to let her ex-boyfriend down easy. Out of a desire to make amends, a woman travels a good distance to answer a long forgotten marriage proposal to which she never said yes or no. A man unable to feel physical pain has his senses awakened in a chance encounter with a neighbor lady who would rather not take the time. A man who blows his chances for love out of sheer ineptitude gets a second chance when things literally and figuratively come full circle. Those are just a few.
Cariani masterfully manipulates our emotions throughout his unusual play. He stirs us up with a few opening lines of irritating dialogue, perhaps intending to maximize the swing of emotion when we are charmed and moved by his quirky turns of fate and human redemption.
I found Almost, Maine most uplifting.
Almost, Maine continues on the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage through April 16. General admission tickets are $22; $20 for seniors. Student tickets are $12 with valid student ID. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, with Sunday matinees at 2pm. The Long Beach Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. Call (562) 494-1014 for reservations and information. Tickets are also available online at lbplayhouse.org.