Monday, February 26, 2007

Almost irresistible

Kevin Kalinsky and Elaine Theodore shake the snow globe.

Sometimes the muses smile upon us. Currently there are three good shows in town– Souvenir, at the Lyric Stage, Orson’s Shadow at the New Rep, and Almost, Maine at Speakeasy Stage. And Oliver Twist, over at the ART, is a respectable effort. I can’t honestly remember this ever happening before – the city’s leading homegrown theatres all working at the top of their form, while simultaneously the ART avoids being irritating! (It almost makes me fear for the Huntington’s upcoming opening of Well. Something’s got to give!)

Needless to say, however, you’d never guess our current happy state from reading the critics. I know that criticism always limps behind the art it covers, but in Boston, even as the arts have been gaining ground, local criticism hasn’t kept up; if anything, it’s slid in quality. I offer as perverse proof of this sorry state of affairs the reaction to Almost, Maine, a harmless little confection currently being expertly rendered by Speakeasy Stage. You can “almost” guess how the critics reacted: Almost, Maine was “almost a play . . . almost funny . . . almost has characters we want to get to know . . .”

Yes, and that was almost criticism. It’s hard, by way of contrast, for me to get worked up about the superficiality of Almost, Maine because it’s so obviously precisely what it is; unlike, say, the highly praised Mauritius, this is simple, unpretentious sentiment, delivered straight up; it's a piece of fluff deep in the fluffy stuff, not so much an “important new play” as just a “date play.” And I am always for plays that could get you laid.

True, when its tropes are stated flatly, Almost, Maine almost falls apart; it’s just a string of romantic sketches, most of which are structured around theatrical one-liners: these characters literally have hearts of stone (which, when broken, they carry around in paper bags); when they fall in love, they literally fall down; and when the other shoe drops, it literally falls from the sky. I suppose this sounds so sweet it could rot your teeth, but somehow playwright John Cariani really does get you to say “Awwwww” without gritting said molars. It’s partly that his dialogue is both realistic and closely observed, and so operates as a sponge to all the sugar; it’s also that he structures his skits tighter than a duck’s you-know-what, and as a storyteller has a sense of timing finer than a Swiss watch (rather like David Ives, whose arch theatrical ploys are grown-up cousins to Cariani’s simpler conceits). Sure, the characters are about as morally complex as infants, and basically free of all context (despite some hooey in the program about the author’s hometown, the locale is basically a twin of the whimsical TV hamlet of Northern Exposure; Cariani even calls his scenes “episodes”). Still, somehow the threat of loneliness feels real enough (perhaps it doesn’t need any more context than the winter cold), and thus the piece’s atmosphere of romantic coziness – immensely helped by Audra Avery’s snow globe of a set - somehow registers as cute, but genuine. Genuinely cute.

Or perhaps Almost is maine-ly carried by the sterling work of the SpeakEasy cast; basically, another frontrunner for “Best Ensemble” at next year’s IRNEs has just emerged. There’s little to critique about the gently skilled playing of Barlow Adamson, Kevin Kalinsky, Maureen Keiller and Elaine Theodore; there are, instead, different praises to sing: Keiller’s performance seems the freest, and she differentiates her characters most fully, while Kalinsky underplays expertly, yet is utterly committed to the piece’s most arbitrary moments of whimsy. But it’s Adamson and Theodore who get at whatever depth the play has, in its best “episode,” “The Story of Hope.” The sketch has its groaners (a character is named, yes, “Hope”) but it also has the painful undertow of real rue, and a set of reversals worthy of O. Henry; it gave me the most “hope” that Cariani may someday transcend the cozy pleasures of genre and prove a real playwright.

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