John Cariani’s 2004 romantic comedy, Almost, Maine, flopped when it opened in New York but is now the most produced play in our high schools, which might just tell you everything you need to know about this play that is beseechingly quaint and cosmically cute but not altogether lacking in bite.
Set in the small, unincorporated (and entirely made-up) town of its title, Almost, Maine — now at Cottage Theatre under the direction of Eliza Roaring Springs — reels out a series of sweet, oddball vignettes about the romantic negotiations between two people who might be strangers, long-lost lovers or a couple in crisis.
Some of these skits gently skirt the realm of magical realism, as when a woman tries to give back all the love she’s received from a man -— literally give it back, in bulky red sacks. Most are absurdist in nature, as when a couple out ice skating realizes, in the end, that their romance itself has been on ice and they are only waiting for the other shoe to drop. The cumulative effect of these set pieces, though hardly earth-shattering, is one of serendipity: Fate and desire collide in surprising ways, resulting in a meditation on the fickle tangles of love. And where love fails, slapstick prevails.
As director, Roaring Springs has a good feel for this play’s nudging, winking humor, which is often amusing and touching though occasionally gooey and too clever, like Tom Robbins swimming in a melting pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (say, Chubby Hubby); she keeps things sailing along nicely, and some of her directorial touches perfectly hit the mark. Each skit, for instance, leads inevitably to a punchline that is equal parts Twilight Zone and Groundhog Day, and Roaring Springs orchestrates the action in such a way that the surprises are delivered to full effect.
The cast is mostly in tune with the play’s whimsical nature, which seems to call for performances that blend the flat, bemused delivery of playwright David Mamet with the more cornball antics of late-20th-century rom-com. Especially good are Eric Elligott and Carson Frost as Randy and Chad, two buddies who, while sharing their bad-date stories over several beers, realize they might be “falling” in love with each other. Also fine are Dale Flynn and Tracy Nygard in “Seeing the Thing,” a funny story about the fumbling, stuttering awakening of mutual attraction.
Be warned about Almost, Maine: The play is completely cozy with its mid-range reach for the lighter side of romantic comedy, and though at times smart and sharp, it can also be cute to the point of saccharine. That said, this is a stand-up production that meets the material with exactly the right attitude of uplift and heartfelt wonder.