A wintry mix of warmth - and sap
By Jane Horwitz
Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012
The whimsy is laid on with a trowel in "Almost, Maine," John Cariani's evening of interlocking playlets about the travails and magic of young love, now at 1st Stage in Tysons through Feb. 26.
A talented young cast backed by an inventive design team has sporadic success cutting through the emotional peanut butter that is the script. Director Michael Chamberlin and his actors might have done better to work a little against the play's grain, instead of approaching it with such wide-eyed wonder.
The opening scene sets the tone: Two love-besotted young people (Jessica Shearer and Elliott Kashner) cavort in the snow in slow motion, then remark upon the stars. In the next scene, a hiker (Megan Dominy) arrives at an old farmhouse intending to camp nearby and view the Northern Lights. The homeowner (Jonathan Lee Taylor) falls instantly in love with her and plants a surprising kiss on her lips. It all gets to be a bit much pretty fast.
The action takes place in an unincorporated part of Maine that has been dubbed "Almost, Maine" by its inhabitants. It's almost a town, almost real, but not quite.
Throughout the evening, the four actors play different couples who, as described above, meet cute, fight, break up and discover they're meant for each other - or that they aren't.
The whimsy grows thickest when metaphors stalk the stage. One character carries her broken heart around in a paper bag (clank, clank). Another "returns" unwanted love in huge, overstuffed red garbage bags.
The surfeit of cuteness aside, there are a few lovely moments in "Almost, Maine" that allow the cast to shine and director Chamberlin to show a certain nimbleness with a cloying script. As a pair of flannel-clad fishing buddies whose legs turn to rubber after they realize they're in love with each other, Taylor and Kashner do funny, poignant work.
All four actors are gifted, but Taylor in particular shows a level of technique and polish that enables him to overcome the script's pitfalls and create a series of honest, unfussy portraits of men.
All the fanciful action unfolds on a set, designed by Steven Royal, that makes literal the upside-down world of love in which the characters find themselves. The in-the-round playing area has a shiny, icelike surface sprinkled with "snow." Mounted high above it are large, three-dimensional models of homes lighted from within, their foundations steeped in snowdrifts. Except these houses are hanging upside down, their roofs pointing to the ground - topsy-turvy, like the characters' loves and lives. The props, designed by Debra Crerie and Kay Rzasa, are also ingeniously conceived.
One design caveat: Even a slender wooden signpost set in the middle of an aisle can block the view of audience members sitting in the rows behind it, forcing them to bob and weave in a struggle to see past or through it to the center of the stage, where it's all happening.
1st Stage was founded to be a showcase for actors launching their professional careers. "Almost, Maine" is worth a trip mainly to see this particular cast, who exhibit much promise as they tangle with the work of a playwright whose overreliance on the cute impedes his own evident gifts.