Our curtain opens to reveal: a flop.
When Almost, Maine made its Off-Broadway premiere in 2006, it closed after a month due to poor ticket sales. Charles Isherwood, reviewing it for The New York Times, wrote that it “may leave the cloying aftertaste of an overly sweetened Sno-Cone.”
But our second act contains surprises: The play survived a death-sentence review to become one of the biggest hits in contemporary global theater.
Almost, Maine is a series of loosely intertwined scenes about love and loss that take place over one night in a fictional Maine town. Today, it is massively popular with community theaters, regional repertory houses, and international performance groups. It has been performed in 20 countries, and translated into more than a dozen languages, including Spanish, French, German, Hungarian, Romanian, Russian, Finnish, Dutch, Flemish, Gujarati (India) and Korean. According to Dramatists Play Service, which owns the rights, there have been 2,777 productions in the United States and Canada alone since it began licensing the play in 2008–that’s more than one production per day, every day, for seven years.
To put this in perspective, the most popular purely professional production of the 2014-2015 season, Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, had only 27 productions. While Dramatists and the play’s author, John Cariani, refuse to release financials for the play (and estimating its revenue is somewhat complicated), it is very likely that the piece has produced in excess of $1 million in revenue through licensing alone.
“I kind of thought it was a terrible play for a while,” says Cariani. “After it started to get popular again, I was like, you know, this is not terrible! It’s a good play! I believe in this play! I love this play!”
One place Almost, Maine is particularly popular is in American high schools, where it was the No. 1 most-produced play from 2010 until 2013, according to statistics compiled by Dramatics magazine. During the 2013-2014 school year, it was No. 2, edged out by a little number called A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by a guy you may be familiar with (hint: William Shakespeare).
So how did this massive popularity happen? How did the play peel itself off the morgue slab to crack the boards so thunderously?
That’s where the plot thickens.
“I think its popularity stems from a production at the annual festival that we do,” says Don Corathers, the director of publications at Dramatics, referring to Thespian Festival, an annual youth theater conference held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which draws educators and performers from around the country. “It’s a great showcase.”
Cariani disagrees. “This is what’s so cool,” he tells me. “People read it and wanted to do it. We didn’t do anything. The New York Times said something about how we gave out postcards, and I don’t know where they got that information” (The Times in fact claimed that Dramatists handed out buttons at conferences.) He does credit a 2007 performance at the respected Florida Repertory Theatre, in Fort Myers, as helping rehabilitate and popularize the show.
At 44 years old, Cariani retains the youthful energy and enthusiasm that suffuse his play. He is thin and vaguely Muppet-like, with a long neck leading to a face that scrunches mightily when he smiles, which he is doing in almost every photograph of him I’ve seen. When startled, more than one of his characters wholesomely shouts “Jeezum Crow,” which the script helpfully explains how to pronounce (“‘JEE-zum CROW’–it’s a euphemism”). More than once while I am speaking with him, Cariani fills a gap in the conversation by effusively complimenting me, at one point exclaiming, “These questions are so good! They’re awesome, by the way. They really are! Really interesting!”
Cariani was born in rural Maine, and came to New York in the 1990s to try to find work as a writer and actor. In the latter part of that decade, he began writing and performing pieces for Performance Space NBC, a special theater the television network set up in the hopes of finding a replacement for its then-aging tentpole programs Seinfeld and Friends. Cariani, without much forethought, wrote several short scenes to showcase himself, all set in some version of his hometown.
“I didn’t really know I was writing a play until some really great helpful artists who were directors and producers pointed out that I had a theme going,” Cariani says. “They helped me pull from what I had the skeleton that became Almost, Maine.”
The resulting play is 11 scenes of mostly independent action between couples or small groups. It can be played by as few as four actors or as many as 19.
Cariani cites The Twilight Zone as an influence, and virtually all the scenes in Almost, Maine have a less-than-subtle metaphorical twist or set piece. One character carries her broken heart in a paper bag, only to happen upon a repairman who quickly falls in love with her. A man is physically unable to feel pain until he begins to fall in love. In a scene that’s recently caused some controversy, two longtime male friends literally fall in love with each other, repeatedly collapsing onstage at the scene’s climax (typically to howls of laughter from high school audiences). One couple, recently broken up, has this exchange:
GAYLE: (she’s been in a bit of a state) I want it back.
GAYLE: All the love I gave you? I want it back.
LENDALL: (Little beat.) I don’t understand–
GALE: Yours is in the car.
Soon, they begin hurling love at each other, described in the script as “an ENORMOUS bunch of HUGE red bags.”
Almost, Maine’s initial run in New York was not a success. “It’s tough for me when people say it’s a flop,” says Cariani, “because we ran a month in previews and then for a month. That’s the typical run of a show at a not-for-profit theater.” That’s all well and good, except the show was performed at a commercial for-profit theater. “We could only survive if we sold tickets,” Cariani continues. “And unfortunately, we didn’t sell enough tickets. And I was pretty sad. I had big dreams, you know?”
This was in 2006. By 2010, it was the most-produced high school play in America. Cariani was shocked, he said, when he first heard a high school was going to be mounting a production. “There’s no way a high school can do this play,” he thought at the time. “It’s a play for adults.”
In fact, Almost, Maine has some unique structural advantages that make it very appealing to high schools. It combines two very desirable traits not often found together: It can accommodate a large cast, but doesn’t require that cast to all appear onstage together at any point. Drama teachers are often under pressure to showcase as many students as possible, but face challenges when trying to corral students to appear in a big musical number or courtroom scene. The scenes were written as acting exercises, so they’re short and allow young actors to show a range of emotions. The dialogue is written naturally and is easy to comprehend.
Joe Crnich is the drama teacher at Juan Diego Catholic High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. He first heard of the play when a neighboring school put on a production. “I didn’t know much about it, so I read it,” he says. “I got through the first three scenes, and I was like, ‘Eh, this is actually pretty campy and hokey.’ And I read it again, and thought, you know, this is actually pretty cool. I kept picking it up and putting it down and eventually I fell in love with it.” That’s when he decided to mount his own production.
I spoke with Crnich before a dress rehearsal two days ahead of opening night. What had drawn him to the play? Some things were logistic. “They’re all two-person scenes, which makes it really easy to work, schedule-wise, with kids,” he says. “To tax a very busy student body, when they’re going 50 different directions. . . It makes it pretty easy to schedule rehearsals. . . [also] the simplicity of the sets, because some schools have very little resources for sets and costumes. So you can get a winter coat anywhere, or you can go really crazy with things. It just kind of lends itself to a variety of different budgets that high schools have.”
But he also liked the script. “The fact that [actors] can deal with it on a very surface level, or go as deep as you want to go in terms of intimacy and immersion in the emotion of each scene,” appealed to him, he notes. “You can play it for comedy, or you can be very straight about it. I’ve seen some YouTube clips that make it very campy. I don’t really agree with that very much.”
Cariani agrees. “If it’s only funny, it’s terrible, and if it’s only cute, it’s terrible, and if it’s only sad and depressing, it’s terrible,” he said. “It’s tough for me when people play it for broad comedy. That’s not what I want it to be.”
Still, this is a route many productions take. YouTube is full of clips of high school actors shouting the lines to each other, mugging, and self-consciously wriggling around on the stage. These productions seem to get the biggest audience responses, with the sound of parents’ digital cameras drowned out by the hysterical laughter of the crowd. The straight productions are more emotionally resonant, but leave the audience silent and the actors seemingly more uncomfortable.
Erica Tryon picked Almost, Maine for the all-girls boarding school where she teaches, Emma Willard, in Troy, New York. “I think it can be a challenge to find plays for a younger audience that are smart and funny and touching and relatable,” she says, “and I felt like Almost, Maine is all of those. It has an innocence without being a naive play. . . . I think there are some shows where you can’t understand it until you’re 60, and there are some shows that are really only amusing while you’re still 16. I think Almost, Maine kind of crosses all these different stages of life.”
Charles Isherwood, the New York Times theater critic who wrote about the play’s original run, points out that there’s something else that makes the play so popular in schools. “There’s nothing to offend in it,” he says. “It doesn’t bring up any religious or political themes. There’s no overt sexuality. I think it can be done by virtually any theater company without offending anyone. It’s an anodyne piece of writing, a sweet one.”
Improbably, the play has found itself recently embroiled in scandal. A high school in North Carolina canceled its production over local protests over the scene “They Fell,” which very lightly deals with homosexuality (though it must be said the scene seems to conflate love and friendship). Cariani, ever chipper, found nothing about which to be upset, even in the censorship of his own play. Except, perhaps, that “people from New York were lambasting that poor principal,” who canceled the production, he says. “I felt bad for the guy.”
“I can say actually it’s probably a play better suited to regional theaters and places less cynical than New York,” says Isherwood. “Because it has a certain sentimentality and whimsical quality to it. I think that probably plays better to the less hardened among us. And if you live in New York, you become hardened to a certain degree. I mean, you do if you survive.”
Surviving as a New York playwright is exactly the thing at which Cariani is struggling. As an actor, he is doing well: nominated for a Tony for a 2004 revival of Fiddler on the Roof and currently starring on Broadway in the Shakespeare-aping comedy Something Rotten!. As a writer, though, he’s still on the outside, despite his huge success.
“I’m not really considered a New York playwright, and that’s the saddest thing to me,” he says. Cariani still feels that the New York nonprofit theater establishment refuses to give his work a fair hearing. “I’m desperate for the not-for-profit circles to just take a look at my new work, because I feel like the popularity of this play–I think I’m entitled to a chance.”
His biggest fans tend to be teenagers located far from New York. “One girl came up to me and said, ‘I like you like I like Taylor Swift,’” Cariani said. “And that’s one of the best things anybody’s ever said to me. The plays are kind of Taylor Swift-y, you know? She’s so good at writing about romance and heartbreak and the pain of love, and that’s kind of what Almost, Maine is about.
“Where I’m from is kind of like the Midwest,” he continues. “It’s rural, and a lot of the country is rural. There are a lot of us who live in places that aren’t cities, and we have ideas and thoughts and opinions that matter. I do feel that life is really complex, but it can also be really simple. Living in a place like northern Maine–life is a bit simpler there. And that’s valid, you know?”
Much of the world, it seems, does know.