Palm Beach Dramaworks likes to say that it traffics in “theater to think about.” But if you are looking for an entertaining night out without much thinking required, the West Palm Beach stage company has a lightweight slice of whimsy on view now that certainly fills that bill.
Called Almost, Maine, it consists of nine brief vignettes on the subject of romance, involving quirky couples who reside in a fictional town far enough north in the Pine Tree State that the aurora borealis is readily sighted there. It is a first play from actor John Cariani and while it will never be mistaken for the works of Edward Albee, Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams — Dramaworks’ more frequent fare — Almost, Maine has become one of the most produced scripts in the nation.
The material is hard not to like without being exactly memorable.
Still, Dramaworks lavishes on the play its usual high level of performance and design talent. A quartet of actors — Niki Fridh, Brandon Morris, Irene Adjan and Shane Tanner — inhabit the 19 roles, morphing distinctly from scene to scene without resorting to gimmicky accents or attitudes.
Fridh and Morris kick off the evening as a couple sitting on opposite ends of a bench, whose love for each other is threatened by his definition of proximity. Their situation becomes a framing device for the entire play, whose resolution literally brings the idea full circle.
Love, of course, is one of life’s great unexplainable qualities and there are plenty of unexplainable incidents in Almost, Maine. Chief among them is a playlet between Tanner and Adjan, a couple out on an ice skating date, trying to repair their strained marriage. He is inattentive and prone to memory lapses, like forgetting their anniversary. Their Mars-versus-Venus conversation over their relationship’s shortcomings is interrupted by her lost shoe falling from the sky. What that means, perhaps only Cariani could say, but Tanner’s slow double and triple take glance at the sky is priceless.
Most of Almost, Maine’s vignettes are too short to have much dramatic development, but one called “Sad and Glad” is an exception. It takes place in a bar where a morose Jimmy (Tanner) is drinking alone, still broken up over his break-up with Sandrine (Fridh). By a quirk of fate, she is at the same bar that night. They meet, they talk, he sees the possibility of a reconciliation, but she is there for a bachelorette party — her own — on the eve of her marriage. The scene’s punchline — which you probably will not see coming — suggests that there is hope for discovering romance in unexpected places.
Love has many metaphors and Cariani enjoys portraying them literally. One example is a scene featuring Morris and Tanner, a pair of longtime buddies who suddenly make the surprise discovery of their affection for one another and literally fall in love. That is, they come crashing to the stage, unable to remain vertical, over and over. While this seems a funny idea on paper, it fails to generate much mirth at Dramaworks, director J. Barry Lewis’s only miscue in an otherwise tight and brisk production.
Other literal-minded, but amusing, scenes include Adjan as a woman whose late husband broke her heart, which she carries around in pieces in a brown paper bag. She fears it cannot be fixed, until she meets a repairman (Tanner) whose sudden embrace does the trick.
And so it goes. A slapstick scene features an unhappily married Fridh, doing her ironing in her apartment building’s basement. When she accidentally hits Morris on the head with her ironing board, she learns that he is completely unable to feel pain. Incredulous, she is compelled to test his declaration, over and over, until love blooms between them and he is able to feel the pain of romance.
In another, Fridh plays a pointedly named character, Hope, who travels far to return to Almost, which she left years ago to attend college, just after her boyfriend proposed to her. She returns now to give him her answer, hoping he has waited and still wants to marry her.
The final scene is between the Mutt-and-Jeff pair of tiny Adjan and burly Tanner, platonic pals who suddenly concede they have deeper feelings for each other. She is inexperienced in the ways of kissing, but together they make up for lost time with great comic fervor. Resident costume designer Brian O’Keefe comes up with apt winter wear throughout the show, but never more amusing than with the many layers these two performers shed as they embrace.
Longtime Dramaworks scenic designer Michael Amico delivers numerous attractive, but skeletal set pieces capable of rolling in and out as needed for the nine distinct scenes. And arguably the most artful design work comes from Kirk Bookman’s lighting, which manages to evoke the aurora borealis, virtually the 20th character in the play.
So perhaps Dramaworks wanted to ease up on the drama as it continues to woo back its audience after the long COVID pause. There’s nothing wrong with selecting a comedy now and then, even one as slight as Almost, Maine.
ALMOST, MAINE. Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Jan. 30. $79. 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.