Through Nov. 22 at the English Building Markets, 839 Chapel Street, New Haven.
Produced by New Haven Theater Company. Directed by Megan Chenot and Margaret Mann. Original music writtend and performed by Megan and Peter Chenot. Production assistance by George Kulp and Drew Gray. Performed by Erich Greene (Pete, Man), Mallory Pellegrino (Ginette, Gayle), Jenny Schuck (Glory, Waitress, Rhonda), Christian Shaboo (East, Lendall, Chad), Peter Chenot (Jimmy, Randy, Dave), Anna Klein (Sandrine, Marci), Deena Nicol (Mervalyn, Hope), Steven Scarpa (Steve, Phil).
Almost, Maine could be seen as a series of small-town vignettes about love and community in a small New England town, not that far off the parameters of the previous show New Haven Theater Company presented in the back room of the English Bulding Markets, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. (I made that argument in my preview story on Almost, Maine, here.)
But, despite the similarities between the play’s settings and sentiments, and the fact that six of the eight Almost, Maine cast members (plus both co-directors) were also in Our Town, NHTC wisely strikes out in a different style this time. Where Our Town was appropriately leisurely and intimate, Almost, Maine is frisky and manic and takes advantage of the high-ceilinged, big-open-space performance area to gently evoke the endless night skies of Maine without any special effects required.
The actors, who all seem half the age they were in the grayer, more stolid (though immensely pleasurable, of course) Our Town, simply accept that they have a lot of space to fill. Playwright John Cariani a sketch writer in the David Ives All in the Timing tradition. In the space of a few lines of dialougue creates strong clear characters with real emotions, then thrusts them into loopy concepts which skirt the reality he’s just seemingly imposed.
It’s a neat trick. Cariani nails these small-town scenes so firmly that when characters reel off a list of names, you catch those of folks you’ve met in other, unrelated scenes. The town bar The Moose Paddy comes up frequently in conversation, and is the location of one of the scenes. Multiple characters, in varying circumstances, utter the same oath: “Geezum Crow.” But Cariani gets most of the comedy out of absurdities and abstractions, such as a woman announcing to her boyfriend of 11 years “All the love you gave me? I want it back. I’ve got yours out there
In the car!,” then tramping through the room with a pile of red pillowcases presumably bursting with said love.
Sometimes the mix of community and craziness gets creepy. In several scenes, characters are prone to kiss strangers, or reticent friends, without warning. These and other awkward propositions would cause deep cringes in a less wacky play (or a less wacky production of that play).
Which just shows how much credit is due to the performers here. It takes a special tone and a special speed to gloss over some of Cariani’s deficiencies. This is a vibrant ensemble which has worked hard not just on modulating easy-to-overplay bits such the laundry-room encounter of a mentally challenged man who can’t feel pain, but has clearly spent time on perfecting pratfalls and other physical shtick. It’s a joy to watch Peter Chenot and Christian Shaboo skitter about as they literally “fall” in love.
New Haven Theater Company is on a roll. They’ve found an ensemble groove which has served them well now for shows from Urinetown to Our Town, from Waiting for Lefty to Almost, Maine. The actors’ affection for each other is evident. There’s no need for grand sets or sound designs (though there is one wonderfully over-the-top finding-a-shoe effect in this production). Just the energy of a group that enjoys performing for each other. A show like Almost, Maine may strike some as lightweight, but it’s ideal for the effortless amiability NHTC brings to its spirited small-theater endeavors.