John Cariani’s Almost, Maine is a two-act play consisting of a prologue, eight short scenes and an epilogue, all which possess an underlying theme that goes something like this: “Love is complicated… and messy… but magical… yet difficult… but adorable… yet awful… yet the best thing in the world.” The play, laying claim to more heavy-handed fantasy-like sequences than developed characters, was panned by critics when it first arrived in New York in 2004. And yet it has become the most produced play across the nation (surpassing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in high schools).
This week the John Doe Theatre Company presents their version at the Producers Club, with company members not only acting but also directing one or two scenes apiece. Some directors and actors fruitfully bring to life the enchanting, mystifying world of love. At other points, Cariani’s words – already difficult to stage because of their brief and surreal nature – struggle to take off.
I learned while watching this production that if actors… speak… very… slowly… taking… many… many… beats, the story is actually harder to follow. That’s what happens in Prologue, directed at a snail’s pace by Tygar Hicks. Although Lauren Ashleigh nicely exhibits a sense of innocence, the scene (the characters, what’s at stake) never clicks and you’re never invested in the dilemma (is there one?) of Ashleigh’s Ginette or Ed Cara’s sullen Pete.
Her Heart, with an obscure plot in which a woman awkwardly places herself in a stranger’s backyard, features a strong central performance from Tyler Rackliffe, this company’s strongest actor. Rackliffe not only brings a calm, enticing energy to East but he aptly grounds a whacky situation in a playable reality. “I’m sorry—your heart’s in the bag?” he simply het hilariously asks Glory, played by Hicks who overdoes her character’s neuroticisms a tad.
Sad & Glad is short and sweet with astute direction by Desira Pesta, who intelligently and authentically presents two old flames reuniting. Ed Cara’s rambling speech and Delaney Smeal’s forced smile are detailed nuances in what is easily one of Cariani’s best in the script. This is also the first scene which fully immerses me in an ultra specific environment: the kind of adorable small-town bar where there are specials like “Free Beer if You’re Sad” and where two old flames most definitely would reunite.
Despite Cat Cabral and Jamie Geiger’s best efforts in This Hurts (plus some sharp direction by Ed Cara, who turns an ironing board into a comedy-horror character all its own), the scene feels out of place. Geiger’s Steve is a mentally challenged character meant for another, deeper play where his idiosyncrasies can be explored. Likewise, Getting it Back – which tells one of the playwright’s favorite tales: a young couple fighting! -- provides no insight as to why Pesta’s Gayle wants to end things and why Cara’s Lendall wants to mend things. The audience is unable to have an opinion because there is simply not enough backstory provided to make us care.
The funniest scene of the night begins Act II. They Fell kicks off with wearying pacing and corny sitcom behavior (like characters drinking beers then slamming them down at the exact same time) but it picks up to display an exciting, natural chemistry between Geiger’s Randy and Rackliffe’s Chad. Their bromance goes somewhere from the first page to the last; that journey is fun to observe. Geiger, clearly a versatile actor, almost steals the show by announcing “I think I’m gonna head,” in response to his friend’s bizarre behavior.
Where it Went is an unnecessary entry which feels like the same couple fighting as the one from Getting it Back. Story of Hope (worst title ever?) highlights an endearing, likeable Cat Cabral but there is zero connection between her and Brandon Sanders’ Daniel.
Seeing the Thing, the evening’s final scene, is a homerun because its characters are doing something particular the entire time (observing a painting) as opposed to standing around or fighting or ‘just chatting’ or ‘just catching up’. Add to that a knockout comedic performance from Smeal, a vulnerable turn by Hicks and an irrefutable chemistry between the two… and it’s Almost perfect.
Actually, that scene is perfect. I just wanted to be cute and end this review by using the word ‘Almost’ in a clever way.
Hats off to this production team and a special shoutout to Renee Levine, whose awesome sound design brings a magical quality to the show.