(March 28, 2008)

Definitely Specific, “Almost, Maine”

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

It's appropriate that John Cariani titled his play "Almost, Maine."

After all, he was raised in Presque Isle, Maine - "presque" from the French for "almost."

As in nearly, not quite, practically.

In the Hudson Stage production - weekends through April 12 at Pace University's Woodward Hall Theater in Briarcliff Manor - the characters in "Almost, Maine" are on the verge of joy, falling into or out of love.

Nearly, not quite, practically.

These are people with dirty fingernails, people who work for a living. They live so far north in Maine that the Northern Lights are a regular occurrence, adding a mystical quality to the trappings of Cariani's play.

A Tony-winner for his portrayal of Motel the tailor in the 2004 revival of "Fiddler on the Roof," Cariani takes an actor's approach to the role of playwright.

"I like nothing more than to be under a director who requires clarity and that the story be clear," he says.

He bookends his script with notes - to actors, directors, set designers - about how this play should be presented. There are warnings - against playing the characters as simpletons in funny hats, against using a Southern Maine accent for characters from Northern Maine, against playing these characters as "cute."

"Cute will kill this play," he warns.

The notes - and Cariani's carefully crafted stage directions - are essential to telling the story, the playwright says.

"I think some writers trust the director to impose the clarity. And I don't," he says. "Some directors enjoy confusing an audience. I don't."

That said, Cariani has nothing but praise for Hudson Stage.

"What makes them special, I think, is that they get great actors - because actors can keep their New York City lives pretty much intact," he says. "Hudson Stage rehearses in the city and trains actors to and from performances. It's a dream situation.

"Plus, they're good, smart people and good, smart artists," he says.

Dan Foster, a Hudson Stage co-founder (with producers Olivia Sklar and Denise Bessette), will direct the play, as he did last fall's smashing success, "Murderers."

Foster says Cariani's meticulous notes are understandable.

"To be honest, we smiled a little at the detail of John's notes, but can also understand his trying to protect his piece," Foster says.

Actors get notes all the time, about how they say lines or look or stand or sit. Knowing how actors work, Cariani felt the need to set things straight in his script.

That hasn't always worked.

"I had to rewrite my notes because of some productions I saw. I realized it wasn't obvious," he says.

"To me, if I read a script like this, it would be so obvious not to go for the sentimental, not to go for the sweet, to play it truthfully. If you play it true, it's buyable."

He's seen a half-dozen regional productions, from Burbank to Boston. He's learned plenty.

"I'm learning that people don't know anything about Maine, other than lobster and the way people talk from Maine. In some reviews, they've said: 'I'm just disappointed they didn't talk like Mainers,' even though it says specifically in the play that we don't talk that way."

Foster says actors and directors must approach the play carefully.

"There are some traps that people might fall into in the service of 'entertaining' the audience," he says.

"When I met the cast on the first day of rehearsal," Foster says, "I told them that one of the most refreshing aspects to John's writing is that it seems effortless. And they should trust it."

Cariani says the simplicity of the dialogue, the lack of artifice, makes it particularly accessible for young actors.

He had to be convinced of this, though. One of the earliest student productions of "Almost, Maine" was by Mamaroneck High School's PACE program, under John Fredericksen, a friend of Cariani's.

Cariani had worked for Fredericksen, teaching "many, many Januaries" at the annual convention of theater educators, NYSTEA.

Still, he doubted students could pull it off. He learned that students took a direct and honest approach to the material, without falling into sentimentality.

"There's an access to naivete when you're young. When you're 35, you don't have that," he says.

Foster, the director, says actors, by nature, want to dig deep into the character for meaning. He urged his Hudson stage cast to resist that urge.

"I think the play might confound some actors a little," he says. "They feel the need to comment on things, or 'dress it up' because it seems too simple and direct and it can't possibly be that clear.

"(They think) that everything must be more complicated than it reads - that when someone asks 'what?' it can't possibly be as simple as they didn't hear what the person said. It must have some other dark, probing meaning.

"Luckily these actors have been very good at feeling that simplicity," Foster adds. "I have seen many actors tackle this material and not trust it."

"I think actors make things harder on themselves than they have to," Cariani says. "If they just give in to the story, so many questions are answered and so many problems are solved. So I try to help people and say: 'This is the story I want to tell. You don't have to tell it exactly this way, but there are some things you have to do.'"

Still, Cariani's attention to detail is remarkable, says Foster.

"Except for probably (Harold) Pinter and (Samuel) Beckett - where it seems every pause, blink, and cough seems spelled out for you - I haven't encountered such a 'thorough' playwright," he says.