The sentimentality accumulates like snow in Almost, Maine, John Cariani's play at the Daryl Roth Theatre. Yet you might well not reach for your shovel immediately - despite expressing only the simplest of ideas in the most unassuming, homespun of language, Almost, Maine manages to be something more than the sum of its treacly parts.
Be forewarned, though: This is not a cynic-friendly show. I can't state with any real conviction that you'll be won over by the eight scenes and one three-portion palate cleanser that constitute Cariani's script. But if your belief in love has been shattered, if you don't believe in a greater power (fate, God, what have you) capable of bringing lonely souls together, or if you're convinced that sex alone is the ne plus ultra of human relationships, you won't be pandered to here.
No, Cariani embraces traditional, even Romantic ideas about romance in telling these nine tales about the almost-community of Almost, located 200 miles away from the ocean, and an unorganized territory too small to be a town. Almost is as remote as it gets, yet the residents are just as hopeful, confused, and torn apart about matters of the heart as anyone, though their beliefs do manifest themselves differently there than anywhere else in the world.
When one woman's heart breaks, for example, it literally turns to slate and shatters into 19 pieces. Two longtime friends who find themselves falling for each other soon become so off-balance they can't even stand up. And when something falls out of the sky to bring a bickering husband and wife back together on the evening of their anniversary, whether they'll be knocked unconscious or smitten all over again isn't so easy to foretell.
Corny? Extremely. Effective? Sure, in its way. Almost, Maine - unsurprisingly, a huge hit at Maine's Portland Stage Company in 2004 - won't go down in the history books as great romantic comedy. It's instead a vividly conceived and executed, if ultimately evanescent, midwinter night's dream, an evocative exploration of a town so bathed in innocence that common sense tells you it can't possibly exist. But who's to say for certain?
Cariani's worldview is relentlessly hopeful, and that - along with a genuine affection for the place, real or imaginary, and the people who live there - helps him a establish a firmly believable "almost" locale. (The focus in his writing is so relentlessly rigid, one can only wonder why his performance as Motel in the recent revival of Fiddler on the Roof was nothing but fidgety frustration.) And director Gabriel Barre knows how to translate that straightforward simplicity into appealing theatrical terms that embrace, but never rely too heavily upon, Almost's twinkling magic.
If the performers initially seem unduly urban, they have little trouble cleaning up (or, in the case of Pamela Scofield's costumes, dressing down) and tapping into their own inner rurality: Todd Cerveris shines in a series of lovable lug roles, most memorably as a man incapable of feeling pain or, it turns out, anything else; Miriam Shor brings an attractive street-smartness to the women she plays; and Finnerty Steeves brings wide-eyed anticipation to a series of characters who embody, or inspire, hope for a more fulfilling tomorrow. Oddly, Justin Hagan, the least overtly citified actor, has the most trouble convincing in his lightly clueless roles.
It just goes to show that casting, like love, can be highly unpredictable. Who, for example, could imagine that even the set-changers would want in on the act? Yes, Patrick Noonan and Colleen Quinlan, clad in thick Arctic parkas, are on hand to change the set pieces of James Youman's pleasing snowscape scenic design between playlets and, in doing so, engage in their own warmly disjointed game of cat-and-mouse. Love is unavoidable, even in blackouts, and clearly it flourishes here like nowhere else.
No, this overly generous apportioning of charm won't be to everyone's tastes. But the hopeless romantics - this show's target audience, of which I'm an admitted member - are likely to leave Almost, Maine finding that smiles have been frozen to their faces.