Describing his new play, John Cariani cites this quote by the French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “A garden wall at home may conceal more secrets than the Great Wall of China.”
Which is to say, the suburban homes that look so tidy and happy on the outside often are beset by acrimony, conflict and discord.
To put it less eloquently than the French poet, the Boston rock group J. Geils Band said it best: Love stinks.
It’s at least very complicated.
Portland Stage Company gives Cariani’s play “Love/Sick” its world premiere this month. It opened Friday and will play through April 21. It’s a set of 10 short plays similar in format to Cariani’s breakthrough work, “Almost, Maine,” which also got its premiere at Portland Stage before flopping in New York on its way to becoming a worldwide theatrical phenomenon.
Like “Almost, Maine,” “Love/Sick” is a romantic comedy — only it’s not all that romantic.
The Maine-bred playwright explained over breakfast at Hot Suppa in Portland.
“I was just surprised when I settled in a relationship how much you can love a person and how difficult that love can be. There is nothing better than being in a relationship, but it’s hard sometimes,” he said, noting that he has been with his partner, a New York City police detective, for 14 years.
“Love/Sick” is mostly about the hard times, or at least the hard work that’s required to get to the good times. There are moments of happiness, and to be sure, some of the couples that Cariani portrays are very much in love for the long haul.
But true love ain’t easy. The take-away from this show: Bad times get better; good times get worse.
ON STAGE AND SCREEN
Cariani, 43, is at an interesting point in his life and career. Born in Massachusetts and raised in the northern Maine town of Presque Isle, he has made his home in New York for more than a decade. By any measurement, he is successful at his craft.
As an actor, he has been nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Motel the tailor in the Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and won an Outer Critics Circle award for that role in 2004. He has appeared on numerous TV shows, including most recently the season finale of the ever-popular Showtime series “Homeland.” For many years, he made regular appearances on “Law & Order” as a lab tech.
Cariani has also had minor forays in film. Last summer, he filmed a feature-length comedy, “Sleeping with the Fishes,” which is in post-production and slated for release later this year.
Perhaps his best exposure currently comes in the form of a television commercial for TD Bank. He plays a frustrated customer in a cold, nameless bank who can’t effectively use the courtesy pen because the chain is too short.
Cariani gobbles up commercial work when it comes his way. He treats it like grant money.
“I have to hustle to get money together so I can work on my plays,” he said. “That money gives me the chance to focus on my writing and not worry about making a living so I can write.”
And writing is where his heart is right now.
“Love/Sick” is Cariani’s third full-length play he has worked on with Portland Stage. After “Almost, Maine” came “Last Gas,” which also was set in Maine.
“Love/Sick” is not a Maine play, per se. He wrote some of these scenes for “Almost, Maine,” but cut them. People who saw that play at Portland Stage in 2004 might recognize the opening scene of “Love/Sick,” which finds two people who share a diagnosis of “obsessive impulsive disorder” as they meet in a big box store and fall instantly in love — and entwined limb-to-limb on an aisle floor surrounded by coffee makers and teapots.
Another scene has a bride bowing out of a wedding while her groom pleads with her in the bathroom to follow through on her commitment. She gets cold feet, evidenced by the powder blue slippers that she has traded for her wedding shoes.
And then there’s the lesbian couple struggling to find their balance between work and domestic duties. One is searching for herself among the boxes in the garage. She used to know who she was, but lost herself in their struggle to build a home and family.
The scenes are connected by the characters’ common pursuit of happiness, which proves elusive.
“I had this collection of plays that were a little surreal and funny,” Cariani said. “They were love stories and anti-love stories, all set in an alternate suburban reality. While ‘Almost, Maine’ was set in an alternate rural reality, ‘Love/Sick’ is set in an alternate suburban reality. It’s kind of the flip-side of ‘Almost, Maine.’ “
If “Love/Sick” has anywhere near the success of “Almost, Maine,” the show will be a hit. The latter has proven itself as an unprecedented phenomenon, said Craig Pospisil, director of non-professional rights for Dramatists Play Service, a New York-based publishing and licensing house.
“Almost, Maine” is a play about finding love in a rural community and all that it can entail. It’s funny, quirky and sweet.
Since its debut at Portland Stage in 2004, the show has had more than 1,400 productions, of which 70 have been by professional theater companies. It has been translated into nine languages and played in Russian, Hungary and Germany, Pospisil said.
“We had just over 500 productions of it in the last fiscal year,” he said. “That outstripped the highest that I had seen before, which had been about 440 productions. That’s just phenomenal.
“Year in and year out, classics like ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ and ‘The Crucible’ hover around the 400-production mark. That’s a pretty high benchmark. For ‘Almost, Maine’ to have been our most-produced play for a couple of seasons in a row and hit a number like 500 is such a testament to what a chord that play has struck.”
Interestingly, it bombed in New York. After Portland Stage, the show moved Off-Broadway and had a short, inglorious run and a lukewarm review in The New York Times.
If not devastated, Cariani was at least disappointed. But he licked his wounds, reasoning, “Maybe I’m not so good at this playwriting thing. Oh, well. I tried.”
But a funny thing happened. “Almost, Maine” caught fire. Dramatists Play Service published the play, and it was picked up by high schools, colleges, community theaters and regional theaters across the country and eventually overseas.
“The play has a lot of heart,” Pospisil said. “It’s funny and it’s touching. It takes audiences to a world a lot of them have not seen before, and that’s important in a lot of stories — that you take the audience somewhere new and yet make it somehow universal and familiar. That’s what John has done in that play.”
REFLECTING HIS ROOTS
Cariani is proud of the play, of course. He liked “Almost, Maine” when he wrote it, and thought he had hit on something that audiences would relate to. He also wasn’t all that surprised that it did not do well in New York. He wrote it, in part, because he felt that most of the plays that are produced in New York do not reflect how he grew up in northern Maine.
But his northern Maine could be Anywhere, USA, that’s rural, remote and rugged — which is much of America west of the Hudson River.
“I want people from Maine to know that it didn’t do well in New York (but) people from other parts of the country would seem fascinated by the place. It was not just a cute little play that did well at Portland Stage,” he said.
He also got some sweet revenge. While the Times barely blinked when “Almost, Maine” opened in New York, the paper just gave it a very good review for a recent production in Hartford.
“That’s crazy,” Cariani said, noting the irony of the conflicting reviews seven years apart in the same esteemed newspaper. “It was neat to feel like a failure — and then not.”
‘ALMOST’ A MOVIE
One more note about “Almost, Maine.” Cariani said it is being readied for a movie production, most likely to be shot in 2014 in upstate New York.
He had hoped to shoot in Maine, but the financing and tax incentives offered by the state of New York are enticing, he said. “It’s tough to make a movie in Maine,” he said.
He’s trying to recruit actress and former Portland resident Anna Kendrick for the film.
The fate of Cariani’s other play, “Last Gas,” evolves. It will get a professional production at Geva Theatre in Rochester, N.Y., next winter, and is slated for an Off-Broadway opening in 2014 as well.
Among the companies that have produced “Last Gas” is Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House in Deer Isle. Cariani has an association with Stonington, as well as Portland. Several winters in a row, he has led writing workshops in the community. This year, he worked with high school students.
Cariani is an influential role model, not just for Stonington but for the state as a whole, said Linda Nelson, Opera House Arts’ executive director.
“It’s important that people of all ages can see what it means to come from Maine and come from a very rural place and make a living in the arts,” she said.
Most important, Nelson added, Cariani has not forgotten his roots. He celebrates them in his work and with his actions.
“He’s committed to the state of Maine and committed to high-quality art that reflects what happens in rural places and not just New York,” Nelson said. “There’s not enough drama on stage that reflects Maine experiences and rural voices. John’s work does that.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:
Cariani in a TD Bank commercial: