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With stereotypes, 'Almost, Maine' gets stuck Down East

Marci (Maureen Keiller) and Phil (Kevin Kalinsky) wish on a shooting star in 'Almost, Maine.' Marci (Maureen Keiller) and Phil (Kevin Kalinsky) wish on a shooting star in "Almost, Maine." (CRAIG BAILEY/PERSPECTIVE PHOTO)

The gimmick of having two characters "meet cute" can jump-start a play, but "Almost, Maine" never moves anywhere from there.

A series of sketches, all purportedly about romance, make up "Almost, Maine," now having its Boston premiere with SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Roberts Studio Theatre. A group of dead ends, they reflect their title: They are almost a play, almost funny, and almost have characters we want to get to know.

Playwright John Cariani, who is better known as a Broadway and TV actor, says he turned to writing because he didn't see any stories onstage about people from rural communities like Presque Isle, Maine, where he grew up. But if the characters in "Almost, Maine" represent the people he knew, it's obvious why he left. He paints the people of northern Maine with such broad strokes they all seem to have, as one character says, "a lot of deficiencies and not very many capabilities." When the playwright is so dismissive, how can the audience react any other way?

Director Paul Daigneault has gathered a strong quartet of actors to populate the town, including Elaine Theodore, Kevin Kalinsky, and Maureen Keiller, but only Barlow Adamson finds the right notes of sincerity and honesty. Everyone else just seems to be acting too hard. But you can't blame them when they're stuck in such sketches as "Her Heart," in which a woman is grieving for a man named Wes until she meets a man named East. Or the "Story of Hope," in which Adamson bravely delivers the line "I lost a lot of Hope," referring to the name of the girlfriend who jilted him. Or the two best friends who literally fall for each other. Those are only a few examples of the cliches Cariani sprinkles liberally through his script.

Cariani's determination to stay on the safe surface of stereotypes is only reinforced by the snowfall that punctuates the transitions between scenes. The snow acts like an eraser, wiping the board clean of any connections, even though the names of various characters and places are repeated. When half the coupling in these sketches involves complete strangers who unexpectedly kiss each other and then apologize, audience members may begin to feel like they're trapped in a bad parody of speed dating in which everyone's required to wear flannel.

Daigneault has smartly avoided trying to dress these sketches up, but it's hard to know what appealed to him about their half-baked attempt at love, country bumpkin style. There's lots of literature Cariani might have tapped for some insight into the lives of people with big passions in small towns (how about Richard Russo's "Empire Falls" for starters?), but his comments on romance are so artificial they feel, well, heartless.

The most sophisticated element in this production is composer and sound designer Dewey Dellay's intriguing musical mix. He, at least, recognizes that just because people live a simple life doesn't mean they're simpletons.