There are too many words for what one feels as romantic love; too many to list here, in any case. But beyond the basics – wonderful and scary seem to be common polarities – there’s mystery. The truth that’s about to reveal itself, the feelings that are on the verge of being captured – all the almosts that keep you in the game.
Buffalo Laboratory Theatre’s new production of “Almost, Maine” stews in this mind-boggling interlude in charming, magical ways. It is a lovely piece of theater that feels perfect for this time of year, with spring sprouting all over this sometimes barren landscape. It’s time for romance.
There’s a peculiarity to the residents of the fictional Almost, Maine. The town is not only theatrically fictional, it doesn’t even exist in the play’s world. It’s a nameless hamlet between two towns, two points on the map, two exactitudes. Reason and expectation aren’t mutually exclusive here, which means anything can happen and almost everything can make sense. The charm in that setup alone is enough to throw these townies off their axis, which makes for great theater.
Director Katie White, whose acting style tends toward the existential, is right at home directing this piece. She infuses many of her own performance styles in her enjoyable cast’s work, from the inquisitive eyebrow lilts, to the stammering pleas of paranoia. It’s a surprise she didn’t cast herself, she seems so at home in this fantasyland.
Playwright John Cariani builds his play with a familiar vignette structure, which while misleadingly cute is the best way to frame the mysterious moments his Almost townspeople share. This play is more than cute, despite its unapologetic adorable, delightful charm. It is every word your Sandra Bullock-loving grandmother would use to describe it, but it’s better than your typical rom-com; it’s thoughtful and oddly realistic. Maybe even believable.
John and Tara Kaczarowski bookend the evening with a rumination on distance. How close are Pete and Ginette to one another, and how probable is it that we will meet again? When does physical distance depict or deny romantic distance? John is typically adorable in his part, guffawing his odd interpretation of simple mathematics into something Tara can buy into. That these two are married in real life reaffirms the joy we feel for their characters’ discovery of one another. Knowing a story’s ending is sometimes a nice way to start.
Mary Ryan, enjoying a thoroughly entertaining momentum on a number of local stages, offers some more shades to her Annette Bening-like portfolio. She gives us simpleton Glory, who camps out in strangers’ backyards to watch the northern lights, and carries her heart around in a paper bag – no, really. She gives us brutish Rhonda, who divulges an unexpected fact about her romantic track record and breaks out of her tomboy shell with erratic physicality. You never really know what kind of leading lady you’re going to get from Ryan, which is the best part of her work here.
Shawn William Smith and Jacob Kahn are Chad and Randy, two guys’ guys – the epitome of small town buddies – who fall over each other in humorous, comedic, heartfelt ways. Smith and Kahn can pull off their characters’ bromance without insinuating or insulting either potential of that tricky scenario. Their scene is funny and hopeful, though still not exactly believable.
Kahn’s Lendell is a post-breakup sad sack who’s too good a guy to give up on himself. His story is far more realistic. Lendell’s self-medication is heartbreaking, because we all know how low that point is, wherever it resides. When he runs into his newly engaged Gayle, played spritely and understandingly by Kelsey Mogenson, he endears himself more to our own Lendell diaries. She doesn’t get how much he cared for her, and he doesn’t get that she’s just not that into him.
The brutal truth in this scene makes it the odd-man-out in this loony anthology. It serves as a calibration for the surrounding insanity that the rest of these stories pluck out of our hearts. It’s good that it’s here, because it plants these weird people, in this weird placeless town, with these weird spacey traits, into a soil that we’ve all tilled. It positions all the magic and mystery of romance as something that’s actually quite true: You never know when it’s going to hit you, or by whom, or with how much sense or rationale.
Given the left-brained alternative – the profiles, the matchmaking, the dream-journaling – it reminds us that the loveliest things are often the least expected. With that precious reality, we leave this tight, well-paced production feeling less definite than we began, answering our ideal theatrical and romantic pursuits in the same heartbeat.
Presented by: Buffalo Laboratory Theatre
When: Through April 27
Where: Hilbert College, William E. Swan Auditorium, 5200 South Park Ave., Hamburg