Romantic comedies often get a bad rap from the literati, or those who endeavor to consume only Art with a capital A. But despite their predictability and reliance on well-worn clichés, rom-coms can also be infinitely relatable, endearing, and just as witty and meaningful as works by the masters. Almost, Maine, a comedy by John Cariani now in production at the Altarena Playhouse, is a perfect example of a rom-com done right.
Composed of nine overlapping vignettes taking place in a New England town that doesn’t quite exist (hence the “Almost”) on a cold, moonless, winter evening, Almost, Maine features nineteen characters (played with verve and bravado by four actors — Stewart Lyle, Donna Turner, Emily Garcia, and Steve Rhyne) in varying states of falling in and out of love with each other. The humor of the vignettes often relies on romantic clichés taken literally, such as when the woman in a couple on the verge of breaking up decides she wants the love she’s given to her boyfriend back — in actual red sacks resembling the kind used by Santa Claus. Another mini-play involves two “country boys” who sorta kinda admit they love each other as more than bros and then proceed to “fall” for each other, by flopping about on the ice like fish for the short remainder of the scene. In another, a woman whose husband, Wes, has died recently reveals that her heart has literally broken, so she has taken to carrying it around in a paper bag. Luckily, she’s just met a repairman, fortuitously named East, who we are led to believe can fix her right up. Serendipity, a touch of magical realism, and a starry-eyed sentimentality told in a North Country patois prevail in each of the vignettes. Indeed, on the surface Almost, Maine bears a resemblance to the town — Alameda — in which Altarena Playhouse resides: It’s cute, quirky, and has an abundance of middle-aged white people.
But Almost, Maine isn’t just a cluster of cutesy. Cariani’s dialogue is sharp, Carol Chacon’s direction and pacing are on point, and the cast’s comedic timing is unparalleled. The “oh goshes,” the slapstick, and the sight gags blend seamlessly with the bitterness, the regret, and the missed chances that befall the play’s most unlucky-in-love characters. It’s not surprising to learn that Almost, Maine is one of the most produced plays in the world (with more than 2,000 productions and counting), and has been translated into eleven languages. My favorite scene was one in which a husband and wife return to the spot of their first date to go ice skating in hopes of rekindling their long-dimmed romance. The wife loses her shoe in the process and, as their fighting escalates, an unanswered question hangs in the air, and it seems only deus ex machina can save them. It is then that the wife’s shoe falls out of the sky, landing with a loud thud between them and their squabbles. Instead of this comic relief halting their argument, the wife instead grabs her shoe and drives off, leaving her husband to find his own way home in the cold. It was moments like this — the ones that surprised and inverted the audience’s expectations — that ultimately made Almost, Maine so satisfying.
Much like the characters in most rom-coms, the folks in Almost, Maine are all fairly similar — in this case, white-bread and working-class, endearing skeptics or likable romantics. And despite one noticeable blip in the last play when increasingly loud music drowned out the final few lines of dialogue, the production went off without a hitch. Even the set design (also by Stewart Lyle) was adorable, with its snowy pine trees, frosty steps, and cabin akin to a life-size gingerbread house.
The aurora borealis projected on the back wall might have been fake, but the heart of the show was real and palpable, much like the literalness of the characters’ foibles. And even though Almost, Maine doesn’t portray any particularly grand insights or revelations about the clusterfuck that is love, its heartfelt immediacy and ordinary aplomb make it almost perfect.