Almost, Maine Review: Triumphant New York Return Of Magical Tales About Love

Kevin Isola and John Cariani (playwright and actor), in Almost, Maine
Kevin Isola and John Cariani (playwright and actor), in Almost, Maine

Almost, Maine, returning triumphantly to New York City for the first time since it flopped here in 2006, is one of those plays that has reached such legendary status that it’s a must-see for the theatrically inclined regardless of its actual content.

The play itself, by John Cariani, who is one of the four cast members in the Transport production at the Gym at Judson, is made up of a dozen mostly two-character sketches — all of them taking place at the same time in various locales in Almost, Maine, which the program describes as “a small town in Northern Maine that doesn’t quite exist.” The production is minimally designed, the stage covered with fake snow, and the lighting meant to re-create the magical feeling of the Northern Lights.

They are sweet tales of love so improbable that most amount to fairy tales

When it was produced at the Daryl Roth Theatre eight years ago, Charles Isherwood wrote in the New York Times, “John Cariani’s play will evoke either awww’s or ick’s, depending on your affection for its whimsical approach to the joys and perils of romance.” Apparently New Yorkers reacted mostly with icks, or at least mehs. The show closed after a month.

But something happened just about as magical as anything during the play.

It has become one of the most-produced plays in the world – some 2,000 productions, in places as remote as Dubai and Nebraska. In 2010, it became the most produced play in high schools in North America, replacing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”Some of the explanation for its scholastic success may be practical: The play has 19 characters, enough to give every drama club member a part. (Professional productions, though, are designed for four actors.)

Still, curiosity alone resulted in an extension before the New York revival even opened. (True, it is not any longer than its initial run – even with that extension, it is scheduled to run only until March 2nd.)

So how is it, the second time around?

Let me give away one of the vignettes, the only one that doesn’t have just two characters, just to give you a taste of the evening. In “Sad and Glad,” Jimmy (Cariani himself) runs into Sandrine (Kelly McAndrew) at a bar, and they both behave awkwardly. As their conversation progresses, we learn that 1. Sandrine dumped Jimmy a few months ago, 2. Jimmy still pines for her, 3. Sandrine is getting married to somebody else, and indeed 4. She is at the bar for her bachelorette party; her friends are waiting for her up front.  Sandrine notices that Jimmy tattooed his arm. He meant to tattoo the word “Villain” because, he explains,  he felt it was criminal of him for having lost Sandrine’s love. “I marked myself a villain, so girls would stay away.” But the tattoo doesn’t say “villain”; he misspelled it and it says “villian.” Sandrine says her goodbye, goes back to her party – and the waitress (Donna Lynne Champlin) comes by to check on his order, telling him her name is Villian.

This is in form but not in wit or charm like an O.Henry story, but, on a cold winter night around Valentine’s Day, it — like the rest of “Almost, Maine” — will do.


Almost, Maine

The Gym at Judson
243 Thompson Street at W 4th Street

Written by John Cariani

Directed by
Jack Cummings III

Scenic Designer – Sandra Goldmark
Lighting Designer – R. Lee Kennedy
Costume Designer – Kathryn Rohe
Sound Designer – Walter Trarbach
Original Music – Tom Kochan
Dramaturg – Kristina Corcoran Williams

Cast: John Cariani, Donna Lynne Champlin, Kevin Isola, Kelly McAndrew

October 28, 2014 update:  The principal of Maiden High School in Maiden, North Carolina banned a production of Almost, Maine that he had previously approved, after talking to a local church — a decision that has gotten national attention. The reason for the ban? One scene between two men.

I reread the play, and, in the interest of public discourse, would like to summarize the disputed scene, entitled “They Fell”:

Two men, Randy and Chad, are drinking beer in a potato field and talking about bad dates they’ve had with women, in a contest to see who has had the worst date. Then Chad says:

“I don’t know. Just sometimes…I don’t know why I bother goin’ out….I mean, why do I wanna spend my Friday night with some girl I might maybe like, when I could be spending’ it hang in’ out with someone I know I like, like you, you know.”

After more conversation, suddenly Chad falls down on the ground, and keeps on falling down, until he comes to a realization: “I think I just fell in love with you there, Randy.”

Randy reacts, angrily, and stomps to the other end of the stage. But then, suddenly, Randy too falls down. They scramble to get up, but each time both fall down. From either side of the stage, they just look at one another. End of scene.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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