John Cariani’s fractured fairy tales come to life at The Players Backstage.
I’ve never met playwright John Cariani, so I can’t vouch for his character from first-hand experience. For all I know, he frightens puppies with air horns and doesn’t recycle. But judging from his play, “Almost, Maine,” he doesn’t have a mean-spirited bone in his body. The play is as light and sweet as cotton candy with a magical realist flavor. It recently floated into The Players Backstage.
“Almost, Maine” is officially a play. I’d say it’s almost a play. It’s really nine vignettes wrapped around the theme of love and human connection. They’re all set in the fictional town of Almost, Maine. That burg seems like a much nicer place to live than, say, Stephen King’s Castle Rock, Derry, or Jerusalem’s Lot. No evil alien clowns or eldritch horrors from other dimensions appear. Although the rules of reality bend. Sort of like “The Twilight Zone.” (I can say that with confidence, because they actually play the theme from “The Twilight Zone.” Several times.)
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to “Almost, Maine.” A town much like yours. A friendly place, a place where love usually finds a way, but not always. In this chilly suburb of the Twilight Zone, all the trite expressions you read on Valentine’s Day cards are literally true.
A woman with a broken heart carries its shattered pieces around in a bag.
A man who falls in love literally hits the ground.
A woman who goes head over heels breaks her face.
A man loses hope when he loses his lover. Her name is, of course, “Hope.”
A woman gives a man’s love back to him — sacks and sacks of it, which she unloads from her truck.
A man who can’t feel is healed with a kiss.
A woman goes to the ends of the earth and back for love.
Cariani’s fractured fairytales have the quality of fable and folklore. It’s the kind of thing Kafka would’ve written if he woke up in a good mood. Or the kind of thing Thornton Wilder wrote every day. The stories are very sweet, occasionally bordering on twee. (The closest anyone comes to cursing is “Jeezum Crow.” Quentin Tarantino he’s not.) But the playwright stops short of cutesy—like a truck driver pulling out of a skid just in time. Cariani avoids pat endings, leaves you hanging and doesn’t tie everything up with a bow. Most of the endings are happy. But there’s always a question mark hanging in the air.
Director Sara Logan delivers Cariani’s amazing stories with a dry, “yep, that’s what happened” attitude. Tongue planted firmly in cheek, she slow-cooks the comedy with the deadpan pace of “Prairie Home Companion” or “Northern Exposure.” Along the way, she gets soulful performances from a small platoon of actors: Brett Anglin, Donna DeFant, Drew Deininger, Derek Dutcher, John Forsyth, Cinda Goeken, Samantha Hall, Paul Hutchinson, Jaimi McPeek, Cindy Schlotterback, Joseph Smith, Philip Troyer and Grace Vitale. No weak links; performances from the heart. If I get into specifics, this will resemble the “begats” chapters in the Bible, so let’s leave it at that.
Cariani’s wry, weird tales make for an entertaining evening.
You have nothing to lose but your cynicism.