TheaterWorks' Comic Romance Captures Hearts (Almost)
By FRANK RIZZO
The show: "Almost, Maine" at Hartford's TheaterWorks.
What is it?: Nine short tales of romance, both lost and found, in the fictional town set in the northernmost part of Maine.
Ah, Maine. "Ayuh": No, no. None of the corny regional stereotypes that you might expect. As one character says, "People from Maine are different" and in playwright John Cariani's light and loving treatment they indeed are, but then again, not as different as you might think.
Unflappable as they may be, they also can open their arms -- when not hugging themselves tight from the cold -- and embrace the magic and mystery of the universe. These folks understand better than most that souls are made up of both darkness and light, which in their case means the Northern Lights which fill the great Maine night sky.
And their stories?: Some are as slender as a single joke, others are fleshed out with considerable subtext, and several have some dandy twists. They all have a fable-like quality to them and the sweet simplicity of tales told around a New England campfire. "Did you ever hear the story of a woman who carried her broken heart around in a paper bag? Or the man who could feel no pain? Or the couple who couldn't communicate until they were nearly hit over the head by...?"
Wait, don't tell me: I wouldn't dream of it.
What does the title mean?: As one longtime resident explains to a visitor: "You're in unorganized territory...It's not an actual town, technically...See, to be in a town you gotta get organized. And we never got around to gettin' organized, so...we're just Almost." The name also perfectly reflects the work's tales of tentative and unorganized love -- which can happen as suddenly as an impulsive kiss.
Crazy love, no?: But somehow it all it makes perfect sense -- with a bit of nonsense, tossed in, -- as the characters connect in literal fashion as they fall in love (whoa!), break hearts (jangle, jangle) and go to the ends of Earth to prove their devotion (further, further, no, still further). Whimsical turns of phrases take on new meaning -- and life -- and show that love in a cold climate is a many-layered experience. (And in one case leads to one of the show's funniest sight gags as sudden passion triggers the doffing of many, many items of clothing.)
Eric Bryant and Jess Watkins are great fun to watch as a man who dares to show his love and the woman who can't yet see the heart that is in front of her. Laura Esposito and Lucas Hall, who also share multiple roles with Bryant and Watkins under Amy Saltz's deft direction, are also funny, tender and true as a woman who returns to her Maine home to answer a long ago question and as the man who once asked it. But Jeezum Crow, they're all more than fine, even when the writing is coy and you feel the script straining some as it wears its heart on its sleeve
Who will like it?: Romantics.
Who won't?: Cynics.
For the kids?: Teens will appreciate the tender-hearted, loopy nature of the pieces
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Sweet, open-hearted and goofy, this brrrromantic comedy is the perfect theatrical Valentine's Day treat.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: At a time where so many of us think of ourselves an urban sophisticates with jagged personalities, snarky 'tudes and a heightened sense of the ironic, it's, well, just nice, to be reminded that there's another, gentler, American story-telling tradition. It's one that includes O. Henry, Thornton Wilder and James Thurber, writers of amusing tales that spoke not to our wizened selves, but to our more vulnerable ones. This play reminds me of that tradition -- almost.
The basics: The show plays through March 3 at the theater, 233 Pearl St. in downtown Hartford. Running time is one hour and 55 minutes, including an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and selected weekend matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $63; student rush at $17; senior at Saturday matinees $35. Information is 860-527-7838 and http://www.theaterworkshartford. org.