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Charming vignettes of RLTP's 'Almost, Maine' melt away winter's chill

As we impatiently wait for the days of sunlight to return, this would be a good time to visit "Almost, Maine," a quirky little place near the Canadian border whose even quirkier residents spend one cold winter evening figuring out what love is, and what it isn't. It's a perfect place to shake off winter's chill, coming via Road Less Traveled Productions on the 710 Main stage.

The show is a master lesson in building an accessible, popular play. Playwright John Cariani avoids situational fatigue by speeding nearly 20 characters through 360 degrees of emotion in eight unrelated vignettes set in sub-freezing weather. Framed in subtle and slapstick comic relief, they are blatantly charming, a result of Cariani's clever gift for using implausible detours to bring love's apparent losers around to the winner's circle.

With theater magic this down-to-earth, everything rides on the actors, and the foursome in this show is exceptional. Nicholas Lama, John Kreuzer, Wendy Hall and Eve Everette look like they are having a blast as they bring each romantic character to life. But, while the broadly written residents are a hoot, the cast is at its best when expressing their feelings with more nuance, a neat trick under layers of wool and flannel.

Lama starts that off in the prologue as Pete, the kind of nerdy guy who deflates slowly in front of us after saying just the wrong thing to a would-be girlfriend. Then we pivot to Everette, as a broken-hearted woman whose spiritual quest to see the northern lights takes a more pragmatic direction when she encounters a curious Kreuzer as a local handyman.

Hall shines brightest as a needy girlfriend so caught up in romantic score-keeping that she has lost track of love's real goal, catching herself just before time runs out.

And whenever any scene threatens to break through the show's protective frozen shell and soak everything with cold water, Cariani tosses over a comic line to reel things back in. Even when Everette is playing a desperately unhappy wife, her foot-stomping anger is thrown off-balance by the fact that she's hobbling unevenly on one ice skate and one shoe.

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Kreuzer and Lama are similarly silly during what we hope was a carefully choreographed scene about falling in love.

Costume designer Maura Price may have had the easiest job of the production team, since the cast looks like they just blew in from the Buffalo streets. Set designer Lynne Koscielniak rose to a larger task in transforming rural Maine into a magical place for romance, and the icy result has a lovely simplicity, supported by John Rickus's elegantly effective lighting.

According to various sources, "Almost, Maine" is one of the most-produced plays in theater. Besides being economical to present, it is romantic without ever peeling off so many cozy layers that it becomes explicit or vulgar. It is unlikely to offend almost anyone, while still being sweetly entertaining.

Probably two or three of the scenes won't be remembered by the time you get home to bed, but there will still be a warm glow left from that cold night in Maine.

THEATER REVIEW

"Almost, Maine"

3.5 stars (out of four)

Presented by Road Less Traveled Productions at Shea's 710 Theatre, 710 Main St., through Feb. 24. Tickets are $44; $18.50 with student ID, through roadlesstraveledproductions.org.

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