It was my first visit to Glenview’s Oil Lamp Theater, and I can say without reservation that this is the comfy-coziest performance space in the Chicago area. From the lobby bar with its friendly server to the overstuffed chairs to the complimentary cookies, Oil Lamp’s aura of hospitality is unstinting and sincere, just the thing to warm one up for the show to follow, a set of nine love-themed comic vignettes presented in time for Hallmark’s and Fannie May’s favorite holiday, Valentine’s Day.
Sadly, these pleasant preliminaries outshine the main event. John Cariani’s “Almost, Maine” is a misfire, aiming at offbeat humor and tender romance but hitting these targets only rarely. For the most part, we get contrived, improv-style shtick that is more about individual awkwardness, discomfort and general complaint than shared passion or joy. The static, over-written skits are delivered in an overly fast and loud manner by a cast of four quick-changing actors who take on no fewer than twenty-one parts over the play’s two-plus hours (including intermission). All the performers are relative youngsters, suggesting that the fun is pretty much over by age thirty.
Some of the sketches are stronger than others, achieving moments of comedic surprise and dramatic intensity. An early bit about a man who runs into his former girlfriend on the night of her bachelorette party has a real-world feel and notes of genuine poignancy. (The skit also has one of the evening’s better lines, when the lonely guy informs his ex that “Spot” has recently died, adding, “He was a good fish.”) But for the most part, the heavy-handed script—full of clichés made real, such as pieces of a broken heart clanking in a bag and a missing shoe that drops after a key disclosure—is performed without much in the way of nuance or contrast. Director Susan Gorman seems more intent on squeezing laughs out of the material than on shaping the playlets into distinct, cohesive narratives or finding a throughline for the work. And she and her tech crew neglect basic details of stagecraft: a nighttime scene that would make sense only if one character were kept shadowed is bathed in an unsparing, uniform glow, revealing what should be concealed.
Even the play’s title—referring to its fictitious setting, a crossroads speck in northern Maine that almost incorporated, but never quite got around to finishing the paperwork—is something of a red herring. The characters are rooted not in rural Maine but on the soundstages of sitcom-land, where everybody is charmingly goofy, self-conscious and hesitant about growing up. One actor—the bear-like Rio Ragazzone—at least partially overcomes the script’s weaknesses, lending his multiple characterizations a welcome touch of sensitivity and emotional depth. However, the scenes without him tend to feel rushed and pressured, and the show overall comes off as fluffy and frivolous without being light or playful.
The world of “Almost, Maine” is one where people desperately seek romantic connection, which always seems just out of reach. It mirrors a culture that makes eager use of sex and romance for merchandising purposes, while distrusting actual emotional intimacy, with its attendant risks and responsibilities. This deep-down ambivalence seeps through, turning an ostensibly comical look at the ups and downs of love and relationship, presented in the homiest of settings, into something vaguely depressing.
“Almost, Maine” at Oil Lamp Theater, 1723 Glenview Road, Glenview, (847)834-0738, oillamptheater.org, $28-$45. Through February 26.