Literary Criticism and Significance

In reviewing the Off-Broadway production of Almost, Maine in January of 2006, Charles Isherwood correctly identified the polarizing nature of Cariani’s wintry romantic play. As the critic noted, audiences who are romantically inclined will appreciate the fancifully whimsical tone of the play while more jaded viewers will roll their eyes at the author’s conceit. In New York, there apparently were more viewers who agreed with Isherwood’s opinion that the play left the “cloying aftertaste of an overly sweetened Sno-Kone.” The Off-Broadway production ran for only a few weeks and lost a considerable amount of money. The play was even featured on some “Worst of” lists in the year-end round-ups, indicating that Almost, Maine was destined for obscurity.

Nearly five years later, another article in The New York Times proved that Isherwood was in the minority. Cara Joy David reported in December 2010 that more than 600 amateur and professional theatres had performed Almost, Maine. In addition to performances throughout the United States, the play has been performed in Asia, Europe, and Australia. In other languages, some productions have tried to translate the location to something local, but the article points out that such efforts are often unsuccessful. Those that retain the play’s New England setting allow Almost, Maine to remain exotic. Indeed, exoticism is part of what makes the play so polarizing. Part of Cariani’s goal was to write about a part of America few people knew. Another goal was to create a world virtually devoid of the cynicism that defines twenty-first-century Western culture. For some, it rates as an audacious artistic statement as well as a challenge to seen-it-all critics and theatergoers. Still, Isherwood and others rightly raise the question of whether creating a Utopian small town makes its dramatic problems too easy. In essence, would it not be more impressive if people found love in a world that was not so simple?

The very unresolved nature of this debate points to the play’s significance. The debate over Almost, Maine forces readers and viewers to consider what the next step in the evolution of theater will be. If audiences have more savvy than patience, how can a play challenge them in terms of tone, content, or structure? Almost, Maine may be perceived as quaint by some, but its theme-based approach sets it apart from the plot-driven realist classics as well as the self-referential postmodern offerings of the past two decades.