Don Bauder 7:39 a.m., May 22
It's not a good sign when you're watching a play and it reminds you of another play, or playwright, more adept at similar material. John Cariani's Almost, Maine recalls Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon, the TV show Northern Exposure, and the brain-twisters of David Ives. Each casts an imaginatively surreal veneer over once familiar territory.
Almost, Maine tries as well. All nine sketches take place at the same time: 9:00 p.m. on a Friday night in Almost, a small (actually nonexistent) town in northern Maine, 200 miles from the ocean.
Each sketch is a variation on love's ways and wiles. And each makes an impossible leap, some fanciful, some just cute.
The first, "Her Heart," sets the tone. Glory's out in the freezing cold to see the Northern Lights. She holds a crumpled paper bag. Inside, we learn, are the 19 pieces of her broken heart. Wes did the hammering, a while back. She's standing on the lawn of a man named Easton. He repairs things.
One sketch takes the cake. Mick Jagger sang (can't recall where) "I lost a lot of love over you." He implies that love is finite; people only have so much. In "Getting It Back," love is visible. When she breaks up with her man, a woman demands he return all the love she gave him. To seal the deal, she lugs in all he gave her, in big red bag after big red bag, culminating in quite a pile. When he re-enters with hers, the sketch grows into a funny and thoughtful "what if."
"Getting It Back" sets a standard the others don't reach, most often because they never develop beyond the impossible twist.
In "They Fell," two men fall in love, literally. The first few are a hoot, the next five or so, not. In " Where It Went," the "other shoe" falls, literally, and the sketch flattens out after that. As does "This Hurts," in which a man who feels no pain gets slap-sticked with an ironing board.
Cariani's gimmick: most of his characters are innocent to the point of preadolescence: adult fifth-graders. A simple kiss can make their month. Only once does a couple decide there might be more to this love thing. The sketch is dull, but the decision comes as a triumph over Almost, Maine's doggedly cute naivete.
When I saw the show, several members in the Scripps Ranch audience stood and applauded after. That was for the four-person cast, most likely. Combined they play about 20 characters, and savvy director Robert May put them through their paces. DeNae Steele, Samantha Ginn, Benjamin Cole, and Joshua Jones (the latter two new faces) demonstrated versatility and crisp timing throughout.
Steve Murdock's sound design does impressive work with noises near and far, the latter suggesting vast stretches of emptiness. And Jessica John Gercke's costumes define character within narrow parameters, since each must bundle against the cold.
Scripps Ranch Theat6re, 10455 Pomerado Road, playing through April 22.