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Theatre in Review: Almost, Maine (Transport Group/The Gym at Judson)

Kevin Isola and Donna Lynne Champlin. Photo: Carol Rosegg

New Yorkers who haven't yet gotten their fill of snow should hightail it over to the Gym at Judson, where, in Sandra Goldmark's set design for Almost, Maine, the white stuff is omnipresent. Goldmark has created a wall-to-wall winter exterior that contains little arrangements of furniture. It snows on the ironing boards, it snows on the end tables, it snows on the just and the unjust alike. This surreal snowscape, exquisitely lit with carefully calibrated sidelight by R. Lee Kennedy, is a critical element in Jack Cummings III's production. Above all, Almost, Maine is a mood piece; unless you buy into playwright John Cariani's peculiar mix of romantic melancholy and fey comedy, you're going to feel very, very chilly.

Cariani knows all about chilly receptions: Almost, Maine got a commercial Off Broadway staging in 2006. The New York Times' Charles Isherwood, hardly the theatre world's St. Valentine, commented that the play had "the cloying aftertaste of an overly sweetened Sno-Kone;" others were hardly more enthusiastic. It closed after a month, but then a funny thing happened: According the Transport Group's press materials, it went on to have some 2,000 productions in the US and internationally.

I confess, I didn't really love Almost, Maine the first time out, but Cummings' production, if not quite a revelation, certainly shows that this extremely delicate material will respond to sensitive handling. According to the program, the play "takes place at 9:00 on a cold, clear, moonless, slightly surreal Friday night in the middle of the deepest part of a northern Maine winter." It consists of a series of one-on-one encounters featuring the snowblind, moon-mad residents of a tiny township where there is little to do but yearn for love. We begin with Pete and Ginette, who, sitting outside, declare their love. Instead of moving on to the usual, Pete, clearly a science nerd, disturbs the moment by noting, "The farthest away you can be from somebody is if you're sitting right next to them," a fact he demonstrates with the aid of a snowball. Ginette, bemused, wanders off, taking Pete at his word and leaving him looking pretty lonely.

After that, there are awkward reunions between exes, surprise revelations of hidden passions, bizarre encounters with strangers, and desperate stabs at pepping up stale marriages. There are gimmicks, epiphanies, and little O. Henry twist endings. The vast majority of the characters are heterosexual. The one same-sex-themed scene features alternating casts of men and women. But they all share the same inclination toward the wry, the whimsical, and the fantastic.

The sketch "They Fell" is the acid test that will decide whether you find Almost, Maine to be a charmer or something more appropriately found on the Hallmark Channel. It features two long-time friends trying to top each other with accounts of their horrible dates (with members of the opposite sex). I saw the female edition: Kelly McAndrew's account of a disastrous dance-floor encounter with a much shorter swain -- it ends with him suffering an orbital bone fracture -- is pretty amusing, and when Donna Lynne Champlin, as her lifelong best friend, suddenly announces that McAndrew is the love of her life, the latter's totally scattered response feels exactly right. But remember, the title is "They Fell," and Champlin, having expressed herself, starts falling to the ground. McAndrew, still reluctant, starts falling, too. Get it?

This is not an isolated example. Champlin appears as a kooky wanderer who strays into Kevin Isola's backyard with a long story about her husband's death and a bag containing the pieces of her broken heart. (There's a medical explanation, sort of.) Isola's job? He's a repairman. A match made in heaven? McAndrew plays an unhappy woman who shows up at the home of her boyfriend (Isola again) carrying laundry bags full of the love he gave her; when she asks for her love back, he produces a tiny sack. During one pained discussion between troubled spouses, a shoe literally drops out of the sky at the moment of truth. At times like these, it becomes clear that there is no symbol or turn of phrase that the author isn't willing to render in the most literal of terms.

Again and again, the hugely skilled cast -- joined by Cariani himself -- challenges the material, finding something authentic amid all the writerly conceits. Champlin is especially effective as a wife blurting out the dissatisfactions that have eaten away at her marriage. Isola is engaging as a homeowner surprised to find his yard occupied by a total stranger given to talking jags. McAndrew nearly makes something gripping out of a sketch that doesn't quite make sense, playing a woman who, on impulse, returns to town to rekindle an old flame. And Cariani is genuinely touching as a sad sack who meets up with his ex in a bar and is made to endure a cascade of unwelcome revelations. Cummings has clearly convinced his cast that even the most artificial scene can be played for some kind of truth.

The rest of the production, including Kathryn Rohe's costumes and Walter Trarbach's sound design, is equally accomplished. And if you don't mind the constant clang of symbols, you might find Almost, Maine to be a cool winter diversion, as was obviously the case with many in the audience at the performance I attended. By the way, the play ends back with Pete and Ginette. Does she come back to him? What do you think? -- David Barbour

(4 February 2014)

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