One of the most infamous misfires Off Broadway in recent memory was the 2006 production of “Almost, Maine” by John Cariani, which closed just one month into a commercial run at the Daryl Roth Theatre, losing its entire capitalization. The highly anticipated production, which some ridiculed as “cloying,” made Entertainment Weekly’s list of worst theater of the year.
But since then the offbeat, high-concept dramedy, comprised of several loosely linked vignettes depicting couples seeking an emotional connection in a “small town in Northern Maine that doesn’t quite exist,” has exploded in popularity, racking up more than 2,000 productions across the globe. A couple of years ago it was the most produced play in North American high schools, even surpassing “Our Town” and Shakespeare standbys.
Couples strive to make a love connection under the Northern Lights
And now, the risk-taking Transport Group is staging the work, the first revival in New York, with an eye toward erasing the painful memory of that initial flop. Did they get it right this time?
I’d say it largely depends on your tolerance for sweetness. Under the guidance of Jack Cummings III, “Almost, Maine” pulses with wit and charm as various couples — and would-be couples — test the limits of love and longing.
In one scene titled “Sad and Glad,” lovelorn Jimmy is devastated to run into his ex, Sandrine, at the local watering hole. Just when he gives up hope of getting back together, he finds the promise of new love right under his nose. In “Where It Went,” after an evening of ice-skating, the bickering Marci and Phil finally come to grips with the fact that their marriage is not nearly as solid as they’d pretended.
These days you can’t have a play about relationships without at least one same-sex couple. “They Fell” finds forlorn best buds, hanging out drinking brewskies in a potato field, lamenting the perils of dating women. When, against his better judgment, Chad literally falls for Randy, something astonishing happens.
In a bid for equal opportunity, there is also a female version of this scene, written for a women’s theater project in 2008. This is the first production to incorporate both takes in rotating repertory.
It’s worth noting that there was at least one production of “Almost, Maine” where homophobic high school officials tried to cut the same-sex scene. The students cried “censorship” and, with the help of the ACLU, fought to restore it and won.
Set against a frigid backdrop on a dark winter’s night (snow falls lightly now and then), each vignette features a miraculous moment that transforms the fragile lovers and renews the power of the human spirit. The Northern Lights, shooting stars, and stolen smooches all figure prominently to help evoke the magic.
An agile ensemble of four plays some 20 characters: Donna Lynne Champlin (“Billy Elliot”), Kevin Isola (“Brooklyn Boy”), Kelly McAndrew (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”), and Cariani, the playwright himself. The comic timing, tonal shifts, and surreal flourishes can be tricky to pull off, but under Cummings’ savvy direction, the performances are spot-on. Somehow, the actors manage to convincingly flesh out the personas in just a few minutes.
The white box space at the Gym At Judson is well suited to this intimate endeavor. Absent a traditional stage or proscenium, there is a deeper connection with theatergoers, who must trudge through the artificial snow to get to their seats.
The residents of Almost, Maine are honest, down-to-earth, smart, and warm-hearted. Bundled up in layers to protect them from winter weather and the bitter chills that love can bring, most of these eccentrics end up wearing their hearts on their sleeves. Clichés of clueless country hicks and “Ya caint git they-ah from he-ah” accents are wisely avoided.
“Almost, Maine” is more interested in the cusp of joy rather than overt joy that can come across as saccharine. The text, however, does contain a certain amount of sugary contrivances that brought the college-age women (clearly the target demographic) in front of me to tears.
In the final vignette, “Seeing the Thing,” Dave gives his longtime snowmobiling companion, Rhonda, a cryptic “homemade” picture he painted using pointillist splotches of colors. In a clever bit of slapstick, Rhonda tries squinting and walking past the picture and cocking her head repeatedly to see the image, but still is stumped. It’s not until one of those mystical moments that she sees what Dave has been desperately trying to show her all along.
Like Rhonda, I suspect certain frosty theatergoers watching the earnestly engaging “Almost, Maine” will be blind to its charms. But if they simply open themselves up to its ardent, magical spell, it will surely warm their hearts.
ALMOST, MAINE | The Transport Group | The Gym At Judson, 243 Thompson St. at Washington Sq. S. | Through Mar. 2: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.: Sun. at 3 p.m.; Wed. at 2 p.m. | $49-$65 at transportgroup.org or 866-811-4111