Like the films of Christopher Guest (especially Waiting for Guffman) and the Prairie Home broadcasts of Garrison Keillor, John Cariani’s Almost, Maine — now at the Very Little Theatre — sports a veneer of pleasantly skewed gentility. The play’s sentimental surfaces appear ready-made for the fuzzy liberalism that hums like a bumble across the honeyed airwaves of NPR. If, however, Cariani’s romantic comedy proves affable and easy on the senses, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as just another brindled, birchy bit of geriatric self-congratulations. As the kids say on Facebook: It’s complicated.
Directed by VLT vet Michael P. Watkins, Almost, Maine indeed goes down easy. The play is broken up into a series of interconnected skits, each one as punchy and self-contained as a short story. Set in a rural hamlet that looks a lot like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (“We never got around to getting organized,” one townie explains, “so we’re just Almost”), most of the scenes involve a moment of unexpected poignancy between two sharply sketched characters. In Almost, love is in the air.
In one bit, a woman mourning her divorce is suddenly kissed by the stranger upon whose property she wants to pitch a tent; in another passage, a pair of co-workers — a man and a virginal tomboy — do an awkward waltz around their unexplored mutual attraction; and in perhaps the play’s finest moment, a couple of blue-collar dudes complaining about their luck with women slowly realize they are falling, literally, in love.
Almost, Maine transcends the treacly stuff of rom-com cliché by skipping the foreplay (attraction, obstacle, interruption, rekindling, consummation) and cutting right to the chase: the irrational romp of desire. Each successive vignette, like a flight of fancy, builds on the optimistic idea of the soul mate — the faith that, given enough time and patience, each of us eventually will encounter her/his perfect match. The larkish comedy in Cariani’s conceit derives from the fact that we might not immediately recognize that perfect match when it arrives, or it might have been right in front of our face all along.
David Sherman’s nicely uncomplicated set (a bench, a porch, a fence) is full of wide-open spaces, and Watkins’ direction uses the big stage to good effect: The paired players interact with the vastness in such a way that they are by turns diminished or magnified, according to the mood and rhythms of the action (for instance, a lonely guy sitting on a bench contemplating a snowball looks to be swallowed by the universe itself). And Watkins has assembled an attractive cast of comic actors that includes Cody Mendonca, Sean Dugan, Sophie Schmidt, Holly Stanley, Joseph Tanner Paul, Sarah Etherton and Jay Hash; they provide just the right amount of sweetness and spark to fill this modest but wise play with light. Almost, Maine isn’t looking to change the world, just to remind us what makes the world go ‘round.
Almost, Maine plays through June 9 at the Very Little Theatre; TheVLT.com or 344-7751.