Brave Dog Players @ Stages through Feb. 21
By JOHN DeMERS
Thanks to the previously nonexistent Brave Dog Players, John Cariani’s “magical romantic comedy” isn’t just arriving in time for Valentine’s Day. It virtually is Valentine’s Day, our annual observance’s many facets divided into vignettes like parts of a diamond reflecting the light. Almost anyone will think this play is very funny. Most who see it will find it touching, or possibly “cute.” And still others will note the longing behind so many of its disconnected scenes, the wistfulness and the sense of loss. It’s all love, folks, and it’s all on this stage.
Almost, Maine is a town – or rather, we’re told cryptically, it would be a town if its inhabitants had ever “gotten organized.” Even so, giving the title of a place to a collection of vignettes invites comparison to other works with similar titles or forms, from the more-somber evocations of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and James Joyce’s Dubliners to this play’s closer kin, Grover’s Corners of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town or the Lake Wobegon of Garrison Keillor’s many print, radio and movie iterations. Unlike those works, however, Cariani uses Almost, Maine less as a setting than a theme, not seeming to care about portraying the place. What he wants to portray is love. And for all the minimalism of his quick sketches, he shows love in pretty much all its available forms.
There is the love we find or fall into, the love we’re looking for or hoping for or, alternately, trying like hell to avoid. And there is the love we embrace, the love that dies quickly or slowly, the love we walked away from years earlier – thus, the love that’s stand-in for anything and everything we ever wanted but never was ours. As the song on that TV commercial says, love hurts. And only a person with his heart switched off would fail to notice the pained words and glances almost all characters in this play exchange, even when they are at their busiest making us laugh.
There’s not much to the non-town of Almost, Maine – and as such, it resembles Lake Wobegon or some other end-of-the-road place of big accents and small mercies. But as the ongoing population of Almost makes clear, it’s full of people who are falling in love. The need for many, many layers of clothing merely postpones the inevitable: love, like the Jeff Goldblum character says about life in Jurassic Park, will find a way. As directed by gifted actor Philip Lehl, one of the founders of Brave Dog Players, the people of Almost, Maine, are only slightly more layered versions of you and me.
The small troupe gathered around Lehl makes up in mastery and enthusiasm what it lacks in numbers. In other words, they play many characters in the course of this satisfying evening, and take turns moving the simple bits of scenery around. Even that act takes on near-mythical proportions at times, though moving a bench might also be just moving a bench.
Three of the four cast members – Kim Tobin (in real life, Lehl’s wife), Georgi Silverman and, in real life, her husband Rick – participated in a workshop of Almost, Maine in New York some years back, and their affection for the material lights the stage all by itself. The lone newcomer, Alley regular Chris Hutchison, pours on his best, oafish comic charm, nowhere more than early on playing a young man who can’t feel any pain. With dark echoes of the Garden of Eden, love enters this man’s life unexpectedly in his apartment laundry room – but at the same moment, so does pain. In John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, lovers aren’t the only things that go hand-in-hand.
Photo by Gabriella Nissen: Chris Hutchison and Kim Tobin