In writing his play "Almost, Maine," John Cariani knew he didn't want any lobsters, galoshes or characters saying "ayuh."
Like the persevering people of the state he grew up in, the play's popularity grew slowly, steadily. Despite a short-lived off-Broadway run in 2006, the play has become the most popular work in schools and community groups, surpassing such well-known titles "Our Town," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "You Can't Take It With You" and "Arsenic and Old Lace." It has received almost 1,500 amateur productions and 70 professional ones, including runs at Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y., Syracuse Stage and Florida Repertory Theatre.
The play, directed by Amy Saltz, runs at Hartford's TheaterWorks Jan. 25 to March 3. The official opening is Feb. 1.
The romantic fable centers on the residents of a small, remote, mythical town in far northern Maine, close to the Canadian border. It presents 19 characters — played in Hartford by four actors — on a cold, winter night and follows their interrelated stories of love, loss and yearning, with a touch of magic realism. (The aurora borealis plays a significant role.) "There's a sense of real wonder about [the Northern Lights]. It makes you very aware that there's at lot more at work than just you and all the things you do."
Cariani, 43, was born in Brockton, Mass. and moved to Presque Isle, Maine, when he was 8. It's a remote town of 9,000 in Northern Maine, about an eight-hour drive from Boston.
"It was a really neat place growing up," he says. "It's truly republican, which means be responsible with your money and don't pay attention to people's private rights.
"It explains why you're reserved. When you open up for a hug you let cold air in and I think that's why New Englanders is a little less open in that way."
He describes people of northern Maine as "independent thinkers. In general, they're practical, self-reliant, self-sufficient and restrained. When things go bad, there's not a lot of hysteria. What really sets them apart is that they listen when people talk. Really listen.
"They don't really notice recessions or boom times because things are always kind of difficult, economically, so things are always kind of OK. There's a quiet resignation that pervades — and it isn't a negative thing."
Writing What He Knew
There's a resignation about Cariani, too, though not-so-quiet in his cheerful exuberance. He left Maine after high school — where he performed in plays and musicals — to attend Amherst College in Massachusetts, majoring in history. After a stint as an acting intern at StageWest, the former theater in Springfield, Mass., he headed to New York to pursue an acting career.
Finding a shortage of audition material, Cariani started writing his own short pieces.
In the late '90s he started to develop them at NBC's comedy venue, Performance Space NBC where director Gabriel Barre (off-Broadway's "Summer of '42, numerous shows at Goodspeed Musicals) saw them performed by Cariani. Barre encouraged the writer to pull the scenes together into a work which turned out to be "Almost, Maine."
"As a character actor you never get to fall in love and you never get to win," he says. "You're always helping someone else win or get the girl or whatever. 'Almost, Maine' is a play so that not-hot people can fall in love on stage."
While developing the play, Cariani continued acting in TV guest spots, commercials and the stage gigs. In 2004, he was cast as Motel the Tailor in the 2004 revival of "Fiddler on the Roof," for which he received a Tony Award nomination. His first significant film was in 2001's retelling of "MacBeth" in "Scotland, PA" with Christopher Walken, followed by roles on TV's Onion News Network, "Numb3rs," "Homeland," and as forensic expert Julian Beck in TV's "Law & Order." He is in the upcoming film "Sleeping with the Fishes" that features Steven Strait, Ana Ortiz and Priscilla Lopez.
Starting In Maine
"Almost, Maine" had its world premiere, appropriately enough, at Portland's Stage Company in 2004. In 2006 it opened off-Broadway and closed after a month.
It lost its off-Broadway costs, reportedly $800,000, and even with all the subsequent productions has only recouped a small part of the original investment. It needs more professional productions and perhaps a movie sale to fully recoup. (Cariani says there is interest in making the play an indie film.)
"It's been a tough slog,' says Jack Thomas, the show's original producer who lives in New Haven. "It was a high-risk venture to begin with in New York because it's so ballsy in its uncynical writing. It's so human and heartwarming. I always thought we'd do better nationally."
Thomas says schools were attracted to the work for many reasons, not the least of which was because there aren't many contemporary plays with so large a cast of characters. "There's also no bad language or nudity," says Thomas, who also produced the off-Broadway hit "Freud's Last Session." "It is also not a middle-aged marital drama so it speaks meaningfully to young audiences.
"I wish more [professional] theaters would look at this," Thomas says, but acknowledges that since so many smaller theaters in big-city markets have already done the show, major theaters will produce the play, despite its box office successes. "It still needs a breakthrough production."
In the meantime, "Almost, Maine" plays around the world, with productions in such diverse places as South Korea, Australia, Germany, Ireland, Mexico and Dubai.
Cariani, who now lives in New York City, continues to act and write. In 2010, his "Last Gas," also set in northern Maine, premiered in Portland. "Whereas 'Almost, Maine' is a love letter to northern Maine," he says. " 'Last Gas' is a more realistic view." A New York production is in the works.
"Love/Sick," which he describes as a companion piece to "Almost, Maine," is his latest play which will begin performances in March at Portland Stage. "Love/Sick" is a series of 10 short plays, all set "in an alternate suburban reality." "If 'Almost, Maine' is a slightly hopeful look at love," he says, "this is a slightly sour one, or at least realistic one."
Cariani says he winces at things that are corny and sentimental. To prevent a too-sweet take, he provided instructions in the published script cautioning that "cute will kill this play. 'Almost, Maine' is inherently pretty sweet. There is no need to sentimentalize the material. Just…let it be what it is — a play about real people who are really, truly, honestly dealing with the toughest thing there is to deal with in life: love."
Cariani quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald in "This Side of Paradise": "The sentimental person thinks things will last; the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won't."
"Almost, Maine," Cariani says, is for the romantics.
ALMOST, MAINE plays TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford through March 3. 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. A free matinee for college students and faculty will be held Saturday, Feb. 9 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $63. Seniors on Saturday matinees pay $35. College age student rush with ID is $17, subject to availability. Pay what you can performance will be Jan. 30. Information: 860-527-7838 and www.theaterworkshartford.org.
Read Frank's blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com/curtain. And be the first to know by following Frank on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/ShowRiz.