Mosaic Productions, a new local theater company, didn’t exactly pick an obscurity for its inaugural production. Almost, Maine flopped in its 2006 Off-Broadway debut, but by 2015, Fast Company estimated that on average, there was a new production of the play opening somewhere in America every single day.
A lot of those productions are at high schools, and it’s easy to understand why. John Cariani’s script is foolproof: Nothing can go too wrong over the course of nine short stories that follow a fairly consistent formula of setup, development, twist!
Cariani might have developed the twists by writing single-phrase descriptions of each scene, then adding the word “literally.” When her husband dies, a woman’s heart literally breaks. Until he gets his first kiss, a man literally cannot feel pain. A frustrated girlfriend demands her literal love back.
What does literal love look like? That’s the kind of stage business that teens have fun with, and so do the young and appealing cast of Mosaic Productions’ Maine sojourn, now playing at the JSB Tek Box.
Director Justin DeLong backs far enough away from the play’s inherent jokiness to allow his actors room to find the adult emotions at play here — but the irony is that the more they succeed, the more apparent it becomes that Cariani wrote himself into nine corners by forcing a gimmick into every story.
That’s most apparent in “Where it Went,” a vignette about a fraying marriage. As a lonely wife, Emma McKenzie works up such genuine anguish that when the segment’s punchline drops in with a thud — yes, literally — you want to bury your face in your hands. In other scenes, Cariani’s cutesy conceits just serve to buff away any rough edges the actors might have managed to find.
Almost, Maine tends to inspire a lot of comparisons to The Twilight Zone, but the one segment where Cariani follows Rod Serling’s example of making the twist serve the drama — rather than vice-versa — is the one where two men fall in love with each other. With sensitive performances by Taylor Evans and Mike Hentges, the fact that the men literally fall can be read as a metaphor for their clumsiness in discovering the kind of intimate relationship that’s never been modeled for them.
That’s much more plausible, and more appealing, than the segment that suggests a grown woman (Tori Ruckle) who works at a lumber mill, beats all comers at arm-wrestling, and has never shown interest in men was hesitating because she literally doesn’t know how to have sex. Never fear, one of the play’s several nice-guy saviors (Henry Southwick) is there to help her out of her union suit while contributing to Almost, Maine’s weirdly high unsolicited-kiss count.
DeLong and his cast have found a balance between warm-hearted and sentimental about as skilfully as in any Almost, Maine production you’re likely to encounter. Hopefully for their sophomore outing they’ll choose a more challenging script to test their chops on.
IF YOU GO:
JSB Tek Box Theater
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday.
Click here for tickets.