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This Time Around, the Play's a Big Deal For its return to New York, John Cariani's "Almost, Maine" is a surprising hit

By ROB WEINERT-KENDT

Extreme, near-Arctic cold can be an isolating purgatory--or, if northern Maine native John Cariani is right, it can be a valuable organizer of priorities.

"I don't think you can survive there very well with a bleak worldview," says Cariani, an accomplished character actor and playwright whose Almost, Maine is currently in revival at the Gym at Judson in a production from Transport Group. "You have to learn to manage your pain in a place where it's very difficult to make a living. You make things work. You don't spend a lot of time complaining about it. There's a lot of complaining here in New York. I admire the lid that Mainers keep on it: Whenever there's a problem, you know, the solution is to get to work to solve the problem."

Indeed, Almost, Maine--an anthology of vignettes about various current, former, and would-be couples on a fateful night in the fictional title town--was itself the solution to a problem.

"When you're a character actor, you always end up helping the main guy get the girl, or main girl get the guy---you don't get a whole lot for yourself," says Cariani, who starred on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof and has reams of acting credits on TV and in regional theatre. "I just found it very interesting that non-hot people don't get to have love in movies and plays. So I thought it would be fun to write scenes for my friends who are character actors."

There was another deficit Cariani hoped to redress with his first play: "Most of the work generated in New York is about urban people, in urban settings. I was disappointed there weren't any great plays about rural people that didn't make them seem stupid or pathetic, or more awesome than they are."

New York didn't seem to appreciate the favor: The initial 2006 run of Almost, Maine at the Daryl Roth Theatre got mostly dismissive reviews and closed after a month of performances, losing its entire $800,000 capitalization.

But a strange thing has happened in the years since: Published by Dramatists Play Service, and included in Smith & Kraus' "Best Plays" anthology that year, the show has since become one of Dramatists' most-produced titles, with productions in several languages around the world and hundreds of high school stagings.

Practical as ever, Cariani attributes the play's popularity in part to "cast size. And there's a lot of room---a lot of ways to interpret the play." Indeed, he's flattered not only by the quantity of productions, but also by their quality: "It's astonishing what people have done with the play; it's the highest compliment when people think hard about something you've created, to have great minds wrap around something you've written."

"Wraparound" might almost describe the aesthetic of Transport Group, where director Jack Cummings III has staged intimate, attention-getting revivals of Hello Again and The Boys in the Band, as well as new works such as Queen of the Mist . Cummings, a friend and colleague of Cariani's, followed Almost, Maine's original progress from page to stage, and he felt it didn't get a fair shake in its original 2006 run.

 

"I've always loved the play," says Cummings, who partly blames its rough ride at the Roth on the blizzard and transit strike of late 2005, during the production's preview period. That "ate up its reserves," he recalls. But the debut production may have been missing something else: the author himself. "In one of the developmental readings I saw, they lost an actor at the last minute and John had to step in," Cummings says. "He does his own material really well."

With that in mind, Cumming cast Cariani in this production, and apart from that early reading, it's the first time the author has appeared in the show.

For his part, Cariani describes Cummings' new staging of Almost, Maine as putting "small, simple lives against the backdrop of something that is vast and majestic."

Each of the show's short scenes depicts a couple in contention, whether flirting, bickering, or reuniting, on a night when the Northern Lights are doing their mysterious dance in the sky. One character, who says she carries the pieces of her broken heart in a bag, believes the lights are torches borne by the dead on their way out of the world. If the play's quirky comedy may be what many audiences and critics first respond to, Cariani insists there's more to experience than a few laughs.

"When it's done well, it's not a romantic comedy---it's a romance," says Cariani, who, for all his skills as a comic actor, can be disarmingly earnest. "There's a great quote by Fitzgerald: 'The sentimental person thinks things will last---the romantic has a desperate confidence that they won't.' "

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Rob Weinert-Kendt is Senior Editor at American Theatre magazine

Photo by Carol Rosegg