Review

Balancing sweet and tart, it's an 'Almost' happy holiday

The whimsical 'Almost, Maine' at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre conjures a glittering northern landscape

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas -- an unusually frosty, Northeastern Christmas for these climes -- at the Hudson Mainstage, where a twinkly new production of John Cariani's "Almost, Maine" has opened.

The whimsical collection of nine romantic scenarios (which ran off-Broadway in 2006 and recently surpassed "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as the most-produced play in American high schools) is set in the very northern reaches of snowbound Maine in a town that's not quite a town, having never gotten "organized," as one character explains it.

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The offbeat, adorable residents -- who fall in and out of love one enchanted Friday night as they exchange unsolicited kisses, awkward confessions and frequent exclamations of "Jesum Crow!" -- call the place Almost.

Each scene features a different couple seeking a comfortable perch in the chilly, uncharted wilderness of love. Their brief stories are laced with magic realism, uncanny coincidences, metaphors taken literally and idioms come to life.

This is a world where people carry their broken hearts in paper bags and deliver bulging sacks of love. To fall in love in Almost is to risk bad bruises, and the much-anticipated other shoe might drop from the sky at any time.
 
This production, directed by Martin Papazian (who also, likably, plays a love-struck repairman) with a large, pretty, up-and-coming cast in snuggly outerwear, taps into the maple-syrup sweetness at the heart of these quirky little fables.

Most hinge on a gimmick or a one-liner, but even when they overstay their welcome by a beat or two, their fanciful wordplay is theatrical, surprising and engaging throughout. And whenever the cutesiness threatens to cloy, the script throws in a palate-cleansing taste of tart or bitter.
 
Papazian's direction is most effective in the lighter scenes, such as "They Fell," featuring Travis Myers and John Lacy as best friends who stumble (yes, literally) into a deeper relationship.

The sketches that attempt solemnity -- like "Where It Went," in which a husband (Dan Warner) and wife (Allison Tolman of TV's "Fargo") recognize that they are no longer happy together -- are less persuasive.

But if one of the candies in this assortment is not to your taste, just wait a few minutes and a new cast and story will arrive to divert you.

Joseph Hodges' simple set, Shaun Duke's sound design and Derrick McDaniel's lights conjure the glittering northern landscape and the aurora borealis so persuasively that when I left, dreaming of icy air and hot cocoa, I was taken aback to find myself on Santa Monica Boulevard.

"Almost, Maine," Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. $25. www.almostmainela.com. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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