Cold Hands, Warm Hearts in Almost, Maine

Also: Young lovers bore in Kitchen Dog's Trestle

How sweet the sound of the other shoe dropping. All through Almost, Maine, the captivating comedy at WaterTower's Studio Theatre in Addison, playwright John Cariani keeps gently postponing the payoff.

In a series of 10-minute vignettes, couples fall in and out of love in rapid tumbles of unlikely pairings. They kiss, they fight, they reunite. And then boom, there it is, the other shoe, plopped unexpectedly between a man and a woman who have been wondering, like the audience, where it's all going to lead.

In too many new plays, there are too few surprises. Almost, Maine is full of them, every scene wending its way toward some smart little twisteroo that's wholly unexpected and utterly enchanting. This play flirts and teases. It's as if we're being romanced by the playwright too, as we watch love envelop the eccentric residents of a snowy little corner of rural New England. Soon we're under its spell, wrapped in a wooly midwinter night's dream.

Allison Tolman, Lee Trull and Kristen McCollum drift into romantic situations in WaterTower's snowy comedy Almost, Maine.
mark oristano
Allison Tolman, Lee Trull and Kristen McCollum drift into romantic situations in WaterTower's snowy comedy Almost, Maine.

Details

Almost, Maine continues through March 2 at Addison Theatre Centre's Studio Theatre, 972-450-6232.

Trestle at Pope Lick Creek continues through March 15 at Kitchen Dog Theater at The MAC, 214-953-1055.

Instead of a curtain call at the end, there should be a massive group hug.

Just four actors—Allison Tolman, Kristen McCollum, Lee Trull and Russell DeGrazier, all wonderful—portray all 18 characters in 11 loosely connected stories. They're playing a collection of love-starved small-town nobodies, the sort of down-to-earth flannel-wearers who work at lumber mills, enjoy bowling and ice fishing, and swig their Bud straight out of the bottle. But Cariani doesn't mock; he adores. The guy in Act 1 with the tragic tattoo isn't an obnoxious goofball; he's a simple Mr. Lonelyheart who deserves someone better than the one who got away. And the girl in the jumpsuit and thick boots? She's a tomboy who's never been kissed, but surely she'll see that her snowmobile buddy is hot for her heavily camouflaged bod. And there's the angry one who wants to return all the love her boyfriend gave her: Six shmooshy sacks of it the size of beanbag chairs.

Cariani doesn't get all Lake Wobegon with it, which would be ghastly. His approach is more elegant than that. Funnier too. And darn if he doesn't know a thing or three about how it shocks the system to discover love unexpectedly over an ironing board in the laundry room or in a front yard on a freezing night as the aurora borealis paints the sky.

Magical realism illuminates Almost, Maine, part of WaterTower's "Discover Series" featuring new works done small-scale. Developed in 2004 by the Cape Cod Theater Project and Portland Stage Company, this play, Cariani's first, had a short off-Broadway run in 2005 and has since been picked up by small companies all over, including theaters in England and Korea.

The author is a Tony-nominated actor who, like many of his New York peers, has found work on TV's Law & Order. Cariani says he was inspired to write after running out of good audition material. His original comic monologues evolved into stories that became plays. The characters in Almost, Maine came from memories of growing up in tiny Presque Isle, Maine, a remote town of fewer than 10,000 residents.

Here is a playwright who takes a simple idea—how to create onstage that split second between two people when love begins or ends—and explores it in unpredictable ways that evoke real emotion from an audience. There are laughs, tears and gasps of wonder at WaterTower's production. The warm-fuzzies strain toward cuteness when Cariani names characters Hope and Glory, and East and Wes. But even his affinity for the literal metaphor and the visual pun (that shoe drops on a couple whose thin-ice marriage breaks up as they're skating on a pond) doesn't spoil the good time.

Director Terry Martin wisely has kept the aw-shucks factor at a minimum. The actors draw the audience in with their quiet, conversational voices and subtle, unfussy performances. McCollum, one of the best comics on Dallas stages, shows off her versatility as a grieving widow in one scene and a bouncy waitress in the next. Tolman, so great at playing sadness, vamps her sexy side in several scenes. She's at her most alluring, oddly, as she struggles to unzip and unsnap nine layers of winter wear in the unlikeliest of seduction scenes. Trull has his Jim Carrey slapstick twitches, but even in a flap-eared hat and mittens, he can charm like a young Jimmy Stewart. The real find in this cast is DeGrazier. The Dallas-based screenwriter hasn't acted in 15 years, but idled by the recent writers' strike, he went to WaterTower's open auditions. They grabbed him for Almost, Maine and for the next mainstage production, Larry Shue's comedy The Foreigner, opening in April.

Valentine's Day has come and gone, but the sweet taste of Almost, Maine lingers on.

If the young lovers in Trestle at Pope Lick Creek were half as sexy and adorable as those couples in the WaterTower show, Kitchen Dog Theater would have a real spring awakening going on. But they're not sexy at all, even in graphic masturbation scenes.

The play's a weird one. Set in a steel town during the Depression (don't those words send a chill?), Trestle tells a disconnected whodunit about two teens so sad and sexually frustrated, they chase cheap thrills trying to outrun the locomotive that roars over the town's high wooden bridge. A friend already has died doing the stunt, his body split neatly in half by the train.

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