John Cariani's split identity

Special to The Times

John Cariani takes his work seriously. Sure, he's familiar to television viewers as the dedicated forensic expert Julian Beck in "Law & Order." And he's also known as that exuberant New York stage actor who earned a Tony nod for his role in "Fiddler on the Roof." But Los Angeles audiences who catch his first play, "Almost, Maine," opening Wednesday at Burbank's Colony Theatre, will probably be surprised by the actor-turned-playwright's passion for preserving the integrity of theater.

"Every time I see Shakespeare, I notice people sit up for the love story and the fantastical elements," says Cariani, 38. "The politics, the big ideas, have some impact, but they're not what matters most. Contemporary plays have too many big ideas and not enough happening. We need to make theater less boring. I am interested in making people across the country gasp."

Those are lofty aspirations for someone who often projects an "Aw, shucks" modesty. But Cariani does believe his words can have that effect. Perhaps his confidence in the ability of tiny things -- such as the romantic vignettes that make up "Almost, Maine" -- to have a substantial impact comes from his background. Born in Brockton, Mass., Cariani was 8 when his family moved to Presque Isle, Maine, a remote town of under 10,000. He planned to be a teacher until three lines in a high school production of "Annie Get Your Gun" changed his life. "I made the audience laugh really hard," recalled Cariani. "I thought: 'My gosh, this is cool.' "

After graduating from Amherst College and interning at Massachusetts' now-defunct Stage West, he moved to New York to pursue acting. He made a living through commercials and regional stage stints. Then, a little over a decade ago, Cariani ran out of audition material -- he simply couldn't find a contemporary comedic monologue that wasn't tired.

And just like that, a writing career was born.

"I wrote a monologue for an audition, and they said: 'What's that from again?' I said, 'It's from a new play,' " Cariani recalls. "I called it 'Joe's Shoes.' I used my brother's best friend's name as the name of the guy who wrote it. I started always using my own monologues, and pretty soon the monologues became stories and the stories became plays."

In the late 1990s, he began performing his short compositions at NBC's New York comedy venue, Performance Space NBC. Director Gabriel Barre caught one of Cariani's shows and approached the performer about creating a play from these tales. The result of their labor is "Almost, Maine."

The play's stories focus on the romantic lives of residents of a small, northern town. Among the colorful characters is a man who cannot feel pain and a woman who carries her heart in a bag.

While refining the script, Cariani continued acting. In 2002, he got his big break, landing a recurring role on "Law & Order." Two years later, he made his Broadway debut in "Fiddler on the Roof" as the tailor Motel.

"John Cariani is an open, authentic performer," Harvey Fierstein said of his "Fiddler" costar. "He's a wonderful writer because he is so authentic and interested in people and how they feel."

While Cariani was still singing "Miracle of Miracles" eight times a week, "Almost, Maine" had its world premiere in 2004 at Maine's Portland Stage Company. Because of his Broadway gig, Cariani could not spend many hours working in the Pine Tree State. By the time the show transferred to New York in December 2005, many choices had been made without input from the scribe.

"The production in New York wasn't what I had hoped," Cariani admits. "I hated it." Reviews were mixed (some good, some flat-out dismissive) and the show lasted only 37 regular performances. "The reviews read like it was fluff," he says. "I hate fluff. I can't stand romantic comedies. There is a lot of ache in this play -- but none of it played off-Broadway."

Despite its short NYC run, the Dramatist's Play Service still published "Almost, Maine." Now, productions are springing up all over the world. "They told me it would only be done in the North, and the only places that are doing it are in the South," he says. "Then they are doing it in Korea. I don't understand -- I thought a lot of the phrases were specifically English. I have no idea why it's happening."

The Colony was ahead of the game. A Time Out New York review of "Almost, Maine" caught the attention of Artistic Director Barbara Beckley with its reference to the "magic-realist" elements and description of the play as the "dramatic equivalent of a hot cup of cocoa, with plenty of little marshmallows." Beckley sought out "Almost, Maine" while it was running in Gotham and developed an e-mail friendship with Cariani. "He's so friendly and so completely guileless," she said.

A hands-on approach

Once the Colony was set to present the work, Beckley asked the Manhattan-based author to sit in on rehearsals. Cariani spent a week in Los Angeles in mid-January watching the newest production of "Almost, Maine" take shape while also slipping in some auditions for commercials and films.

The extent of Cariani's input included ensuring the set's doors were swinging in the correct direction. Despite the flood of questions about how certain things should be played, he offered little criticism of the staging or performances.

"I've seen people make the choice that is obvious -- and that is too bad; they should have thought a little deeper," Cariani says of various other productions. "Here they are making a lot of the right choices."

Making the right choices is important to the playwright. He not only regrets the off-Broadway "Almost, Maine" but also believes he erred in giving the green light to a production of his second work, "cul-de-sac," which premiered in New York in spring 2006, before he was finished with it. So now he's spending a lot of time trying to remedy mistakes made on these projects. This summer, he may direct a regional staging of "Almost, Maine" and is revising "cul-de-sac" to make it "a real play."

Like other actors, he is auditioning. And like some writers, he is working on a commission -- currently one from the Cape Cod Playhouse that will result in a play incorporating baseball's Boston Red Sox.

Cariani wants to remain in both worlds -- making people laugh and gasp through his performances as well as his scripts. Undoubtedly, he'll have issues with whatever he creates. After all, he's a stickler for quality entertainment.

"I think it is important that playwrights think about writing plays that people can do," he said. "There are plenty of smart people who aren't theater savvy. These people should be able to appreciate, understand and enjoy plays. There are so many forms of media for storytelling now, the story has to be so damn good to ask people to pay for it. I never write my story until I know the end. Life doesn't end, but plays should. We owe that, and so much more, to the audience."

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'Almost, Maine'

Where: Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Call for exceptions or see colonytheatre.org

Ends: March 9

Price: $37 to $42

Contact: (818) 558-7000, Ext. 15

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