Volume 75, Number 36 | January 25 - 31, 200

Theater

ALMOST, MAINE
Written by John Cariani
Directed by Gabriel Barre
Open run
The Daryl Roth Theatre
101 East 15th Street, east of Union Square
(212-239-6200; almostmaine.com)

Joan Marcus

Justin Hagan and Finnerty Steves perform in “Her Heart,” one of the eleven dramatic vignettes about love in “Almost, Maine.”

A heart in winter

By Scott Harrah

The northernmost part of Maine in the dead of winter is truly an unlikely setting for a lighthearted romantic comedy, but playwright John Cariani creates a lot of warmth and humor in this bleak geographic area in “Almost, Maine.” The two-act play consists of 11 vignettes, each set in the fictional town of Almost near the Canadian border, and all take place around 9 pm on a wintry Friday night. The play, originally written in 1999, received much acclaim with various readings and a successful regional run two years ago in Portland, Maine.

Cariani uses the rugged backdrop of his home state as a canvas upon which he paints portraits of various stages of romance, loss, homecoming, emotional turmoil, redemption, and small-town angst. The talented cast members perform multiple roles, from an abandoned wife and a sassy waitress to a goofy lumberjack and a disillusioned husband. Each of the stories is so distinct and marvelously acted that you’ll quickly forget that the play has only four actors. Most of the stories are more bittersweet than sentimental, with just enough whimsy added to keep everything from becoming too serious. Metaphors for love take on a tangible literal significance in many of the tales, from broken hearts carried in little bags to people actually falling down as they “fall” in love. Such jokes may sound silly, but Cariani somehow makes them work.

In “Her Heart,” a man named East (Justin Hagan) encounters an intruder, Glory (Finnerty Steeves), on his property. She’s camped out on his land to watch the Northern Lights and say good-bye to her recently deceased husband. Glory explains that her late spouse literally broke her heart, and she had to have an artificial one surgically implanted.

Quirkiness abounds in “Getting It Back,” a story about quarreling lovers Gayle (Miriam Shor) and Lendall (Todd Cerveris) returning each other’s love in big sacks. In “This Hurts,” Cerveris plays Steve, a man with a rare disorder that makes him unable to feel pain. Chad (Justin Hagan) and Randy (Cerveris) play two buddies dealing with denial and shock as they quickly realize they may be in love with each other in “They Fell.” They fall all over the snowy ground as they argue about their true feelings.

One of the least gimmicky stories, and perhaps the most powerful, is “Seeing the Thing.” Snowmobile rider Dave (Hagan) professes his love for tomboyish Rhonda (Shor) by giving her a painting. Rhonda, a virgin, is quite taken aback when Dave attempts to kiss her. Through various exasperating proclamations, he convinces her that she is worthy of being loved.

Cariani, also an accomplished actor who received a Tony nomination for his role as Motel the Tailor in the revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” evokes the sense of emotional isolation one might feel in a rural Northern town. His dialogue is punchy and witty, yet still colloquial enough to be believable, and true to the chilly, rustic world of the town’s inhabitants. “My parents moved south,” one character says when talking about the area’s harsh climate. “To Vermont. Winters are easier there.”

The sets by James Youmans, featuring gorgeous scenes like the twinkling sky, snowdrifts, and a folksy bar called the Moose Paddy, make the audience feel as though they are truly in Maine on a midwinter night.

More than anything, the play is a wonderful vehicle for four of New York’s brightest up-and-coming actors, all skillfully directed by Gabriel Barre. Standouts include the exquisite Miriam Shor, who recently thrilled Off-Broadway audiences in Terrence McNally’s “Dedication or the Stuff of Dreams.” Todd Cerveris, last seen on Broadway in “Twentieth Century,” is also superb, and Justin Hagen and Finnerty Steeves are also first-rate, making this delightful compendium of romantic winter tales the perfect date play for the first cold weeks of the new year.

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