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Almost, Maine

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

John Cariani and Donna Lynne Champlin
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

How do they keep the snow on the stage? No, not "how do they get the snow on the stage"—any scenic designer worth his or her rock salt could truck the necessary white stuff down to the Gym at Judson without too much trouble, and obviously has given the bushels of it on display there. But preserving the spirit and appearance of eternal, nearly arctic chilliness amid the unashamed warmth that emanates through every minute of Almost, Maine? That can't be easy. Were this reality, the actors in this lovely revival of John Cariani's play would never be trudging through less than two inches of standing water.

But this is not reality—and, in this case, that's a good thing. (As for the snow, which falls from the sky in sheets and collects at the performers' feet, it's obviously fabricated, but let's not dwell on that.) With Jack Cummings III's canny production of this bewitching, snowflake-evanescent little piece, which ran a month in New York in 2006, you can invest two hours to dwell in a world where romance is once again magical. That's a heady antidote for the unpredictable weather patterns and frostbitten cynicism that are currently defining our outside world.

This is perfectly appropriate, as in the tiny (and mythical) unorganized community that gives the play its name, the traditional rules simply don't apply. This is a place where romantic small talk about being closer together the farther apart you are becomes an epic quest, or where the figurative becomes literal when discussing such common topics as a broken heart, falling in love, or losing hope. And, most notably, a place where all of this makes sense and never comes across as contrived or twee.

That Cariani is able to establish and maintain this atmosphere is amazing, not least because he does so across 11 scenes telling nine miniature stories. He links them together, sort of, by presenting them within the framework of a single wintry evening when the Northern Lights blaze through the sky just as unfamiliar feelings blaze through Almost's inhabitants' bodies. But the more compelling bond between them is the honesty and bewilderment that create and fuel love: the emotions even the greatest artists have struggled to articulate.

Cariani doesn't struggle per se, but his are admittedly not probing examinations of complicated feelings. Rather, they're extrapolations, and gentle ones, of sensations and experiences to which we can all relate. But because the couples he chronicles (each playlet focuses on only two characters) believe in their heightened reality, and because Cummings's straightforward, declarative staging promotes it as well, the pedestrian becomes special and the cumulative effect sufficient to soften even the hardest of visages, if maybe only for a few minutes.

Cummings, opting for an approach considerably more minimalistic and less naturalistic than the original production's, nonetheless provides an effective earthbound background against which the mystical moments can reasonably shine. (The features of the playing space, including staircases, doors, and even exit signs, factor into Cummings's work.) This quality is amplified by R. Lee Kennedy's comforting lights and especially Sandra Goldmark's scenic design, which suggests that all the crucial set pieces, like these people's lives, are half-buried in snowdrifts. When something unexpected happens, as occurs with relative frequency, it's because everyone involved has left it no other choice.

This includes the actors, all of whom bear the unadorned, rugged charm of non–city dwellers with the necessary overlay of a belief in the fantastic. Donna Lynne Champlin, usually acclaimed as a musical theatre actress, gets to exercise her well-toned comic chops here, expertly wielding deadpan delivery and emotional innocence alike as she weaves from playing a woman recovering from the death of the husband she didn't love to a quietly inspiring waitress to a self-protective nurse to a first-time lover. Kevin Isola drily excels in a series of roles as "other men" who women rarely recognize is exactly the person they want. And Kelly McAndrew brings an alluring but quirky shimmer to the (frequently unanticipated) object of several paramours' affections.

The fourth actor is Cariani himself, who proves ideal as a collection of well-meaning but socially clueless men who happily discover just how far their prospective partners might go for them. The contrast of his distinctly urban look with his restrained, non-pushy delivery highlights almost better than his writing the conflict at the center of Almost, Maine: whether anything, or anyone, so naturally simple can—or should—be part of a world as brutally complex as the one in which we live.

Cariani does his fair share of pratfalls, from getting hit with an ironing board to being brought to his knees after realizing how much he cares for someone he'd never before considered, and marshals precise comic timing when one of his characters must remove myriad layers of insulating clothing prior to an inaugural assignation with a longtime friend. But an undercurrent of seriousness runs through his performance, and is a reminder that's not easily dismissed: I may be making you laugh, but what you're seeing matters—because love matters. Trite? Maybe a little. But at Almost, Maine, which has exactly the same mission statement, you'll be too busy smiling to argue.

Almost, Maine
Through March 2
Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street at Washington Square South
Tickets and performance schedule at OvationTix

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