Can the clean, wintry air of the uppermost reaches of Maine be the cure for the common cold or migraine headaches? Actor, now playwright, John Cariani believes so.
In his whimsical romantic comedy Almost, Maine, where under the spell of the Northern Lights the residents of a small town (called, naturally Almost) are falling head over heels, literally, in and out of love at an alarming rate, it's a midwinter night's dream!

Cariani's receiving excellent audience response at Off Broadway's Daryl Roth Theater, and some interesting accolades. One reviewer called him "the New England Woody Allen," praise Cariani says he hopes he can live up to.

Cariani made his Broadway debut as eccentric Motel the tailor in the 2004 revival of Fiddler On the Roof . He received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor. He's acted in James Lapine's Modern Orthodox (replacing Jason Biggs) and in Central Park in the Public/NYSF revival of Galt MacDermot and John Guare's Two Gentlemen of Verona, might be best known to the masses for his portrayal of forensics technician Beck, on TV's "Law & Order."

Almost, Maine, directed by Gabriel Barre, features the fastest quick changes (one-upped only by the actors in Forbidden Broadway) and the hardest- working actors in the business -- even if they are in New England slow-motion mode as opposed to a quick-paced New York one.

The excellent ensemble is made up of Todd Cerveris (Michael's brother), Justin Hagan, Miriam Shor (most recently seen in Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams), Finnerty Steeves and two very busy understudies, Patrick Noonan and Colleen Quinian, who do the set changes.

Yes, he admits, Cariani is a proud Maine native, and the sketches in Almost Maine about the quirky, love-smitten natives he knew or heard about began to germinate there over a decade ago.

After graduation from college in Massachusetts, Cariani did an internship at a theater there "where I did everything from take classes from The Acting Company to clean the toilets." After a couple of years there, the artistic director told him, basically, "Go West, young man" or to Chicago or New York, "the three places where, hopefully, you can make a living doing this sort of thing." Cariani, along with eight others, chose the latter.

He found it wasn't so easy. The six-foot, rail-thin actor worked at a gym. "The first thing everybody would say is that I didn't look the personal trainer type," he laughs, "and I wasn't; I worked in billing."
In spite of his lack of bulk, Cariani got roles in such films as "Scotland, PA" and "Kissing Jessica Stein" and on the quirky TV series "Ed," where he played a resident of Stuckeyville.

NBC began an innovative program at downtown's Here, called Performance Space, where the network hope to discover comedians and good sit-com material. "I was asked if I'd be interested in a couple of Monday nights now and then to put up funny material. I said, 'I'll try it.'" His stories about the quirky characters he'd known and heard about in Maine went over well.

They were taped, reviewed by the network, who owned the material for a specific period until they decided how they wanted to proceed. "They didn't wish to proceed with me," say Cariani.

By 2002, when the material was whittled down from 24 stories to the present nine sketches loosely connected by a prologue and epilogue, he workshopped Almost, Maine at the Cape Cod Theater Project and a premiere production at Portland (Maine, of course) Stage Theater.
There were four actors playing 19 characters. "When the cast took their bows, it always astonished audiences that only four actors played all those roles."

Then came Fiddler, for which he also won an Outer Critics Circle Award for Featured Actor. Cariani laughs, "I wasn't even nominated by Drama Desk, so I learned about awards pretty quickly."

He says he "grew up a lot with Fiddler. It was something I was so proud of. There were so many revelations in it (thanks to David Leveaux's directorial interpretation) and I found it quite moving; but you could feel New York turn on it. I guess the show is so set in people's minds, that they don't want you to try anything different.
"We're all still pretty sad," he continues, "about some of the critical beating we got -- for the show, supposedly, not being `Jewish' enough -- how it could have been more `Jewish' beats the heck out of me!). Some of us feel responsible."

Responsible? In what way? "Because, even though we know we tried to do something interesting, we feel we let audiences down."

Hopefully, with the happy audience response to Almost, Maine, Cariani will, in the words of Cher to Nicholas Cage in "Moonstruck," will snap out of it. (Fiddler may have "let down" a couple of critics, and then others started jumped on that bandwagon; but it played almost two years and over 780 performances.)

"When I came to New York," says the actor/playwright, "everything I saw was about New Yorkers or celebrated New York. I wanted to do something to celebrate Maine.

Anita Stewart, the artistic director of Portland Stage, told me how difficult it had become to find new material here that would appeal to their audiences. That's why the regionals are so busy cultivating new writers, because they're not being cultivated here."

As Cariani greeted friends and audience members after a recent performance of Almost, Maine, he was ecstatic hearing the positive comments. "A lot of folks told me my play would never fly in New York," he said softly, "because it's about, well, Maine. And, sure enough, some of the critics have said that. But audiences love it. It's Off Broadway, at prices even younger audiences can afford. It's a great date play!"


Key Subjects: 
John Cariani, Fiddler on the Roof, Almost, Maine;
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of <I>Jesus Christ Superstar</I>" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
January 2006