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Theater Review: Travel to 'Maine' at Penna. Playhouse

If you're looking for a holiday season stage show alternative, travel to "Almost, Maine," at Pennsylvania Playhouse, Bethlehem, through Dec. 21.

Clair M. Freeman, Pennsylvania Playhouse production chair, has gotten outstanding performances from the six-person ensemble in the two-hour, two-act drama-comedy written by John Cariani.

The play, which premiered in 2004 at Portland Stage Company, Portland, Me., opened for a one-month run in 2006 off-Broadway in New York City.

Each of the six actors plays at least three roles in five two-person scenes in Act 1 and six two person scenes in Act 2 taking place in a mythical town called Almost. The play was reviewed opening night, Dec. 6, at Pennsylvania Playhouse.

The set design by Dan Lewis is minimalist and effective.

The lighting design by Jess Moody is nicely atmospheric.

The costume design by Brenda McGuire represents typical northeast United States attire for winter, which is when the play takes place.

"Almost, Maine" is sly, imaginative and thought-provoking. It has elements of the absurdist, existentialist plays and staging pioneered by Bertolt Brecht, Luigi Pirandello and Samuel Beckett as if filtered through the romantic and family concerns of Neil Simon and Woody Allen and with a bit of "Twin Peaks" and "Northern Exposure" thrown in.

The storylines could be charitably described as close encounters of the strange kind, with quirky dialogue and acting to boot. One is reminded of the sketch comedy of "Second City Television" and "Saturday Night Live."

The dialogue is conversational, plain-spoken and seemingly inconsequential -- until each sketch's zinger or plot twist as we discover relationships unraveling, going awry or coming together. The characters actually exclaim "Holy Cow!' with nary a trace of irony.

With so many characters, scenes and similar-sounding dialogue, it's not easy to keep the characters distinctive from sketch to sketch. This is not the fault of the actors nor the director, but rather the script.

In "Story of Hope," Syd Stauffer is most distinctive as Hope, who has a real hard-luck heartbreak story to tell.

Stauffer is also memorable as Glory, opposite Charles Weigold, III, in "Her Heart."

In "Sad And Glad," Kristen Stachina creates the right amount of tension as Sandrine, who, quite by chance (it is apparently a small town, though), runs into her ex boyfriend Jimmy (Steven Schmid) at the Moose Paddy bar. Schmid conveys a dispirited wistfulness.

In "This Hurts," Katti Mayk and Sebastian Paff intensely and sensitively explore the breaking down of walls between two persons.

"Almost, Maine" is amusing and surprisingly sweet. If you want to think outside of the fruitcake box for the holiday season, this play's for you.