John Cariani at Portland Stage, where he will return to act in a revival of his 2004 play “Almost, Maine.” Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Maine-bred actor and playwright John Cariani has landed another Broadway role, and that means he’s going to miss a few performances of a local revival of “Almost, Maine,” his 2004 play about falling in love in a small town in northern Maine. He’s starring in the revival, which begins in January at Portland Stage.

Cariani signed a six-month contract to appear in another revival, Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change,” which will show in previews beginning March 13 and open April 7 at Studio 54 in New York. Rehearsals begin Feb. 3. He’s also finishing a novel version of “Almost, Maine,” which Macmillan Publishers plans to release in March.

Portland Stage is adjusting its run of “Almost, Maine,” shifting the schedule forward by one week, to accommodate Cariani. It will now open Jan. 15, with the last performance on Feb. 9. Portland actor Dustin Tucker will fill in for Cariani for six performances from Feb. 5-8. Cariani will appear in the final performance on Feb. 9, the playhouse said.

Portland Stage debuted the play in 2004, and it remains the most popular subscription-series play in the theater’s history, based on the percentage of seats sold, said Anita Stewart, the theater’s executive and artistic producer. She tried to negotiate with the producers of “Caroline, or Change” so Cariani could start rehearsals in New York while finishing up “Almost, Maine” in Portland.

“But they’re Broadway producers. The answer was no,” Stewart said.

Cariani, 50, who grew up in Presque Isle, earned a Tony Award nomination for his portrayal of Motel in “Fiddler on the Roof” in 2004 and has appeared on Broadway in “Something Rotten!” and “The Band’s Visit.” “The Band’s Visit” won a Tony Award for best musical, and Cariani earned a Grammy Award nomination for the original cast recording of “Something Rotten!” He’s also appeared in episodes of the TV shows “Law & Order,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “The Blacklist,” “The Good Wife” and many others.


“Almost, Maine” is a romantic winter comedy, set in a fictional small town in far northern Maine, where lovers like to hug, kiss and marvel at the night sky. The play gives voice to rural people, a theme common in much of Cariani’s original work. He tells the story in a series of vignettes involving different settings and groups of actors. It had a brief off-Broadway run after opening at Portland Stage and has since become one of the most-produced plays in America with more than 4,000 productions in regional, high school and college theaters.

Portland Stage is bringing it back, with Cariani in a starring role, as part of its bicentennial focus on Maine artists and Maine stories. Sally Wood will direct the Portland play. The rest of the four-person cast comes from New York. As part of the shift in schedules, the first week of rehearsals will begin in New York.

Cariani attended plays at Portland Stage as a kid, and this will be his first time appearing on its stage as an actor. It also will be the last time he acts in “Almost, Maine,” which he’s done only a few times. “I will be too old,” he said in a phone interview from New York. “Anita wanted me to be involved, and I asked, ‘Can I direct it?’ And she said, ‘Can you be in it?’ ”

He said his “heart sank” when he learned the New York producers wouldn’t let him shuttle back and forth to Maine, “but in typical Anita Stewart fashion she found a solution” by compressing and adjusting rehearsal schedules and shifting performance dates.

He said Tucker, a Portland-based theater, film and TV actor, is a perfect fill-in. “He’s tremendous. He’s beloved. He’s known. He’s funny. He’s awesome. I’m a little scared because he’s going to be better than I am, and I’m only half-kidding.”

When she booked Cariani for “Almost, Maine,” Stewart knew there was a chance he might be called to act in New York and said she supported his decision to take the role. “It’s a huge Broadway show. It’s not something you can say no to.”


The theater’s technical team faces the biggest challenge with the schedule change, because it loses a week of work time. “It’s A Wonderful Life” opens Friday and is up through Christmas Eve. “Once we get ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ up, then I have to get into the studio and do some fancy footwork as far as the set design goes for ‘Almost, Maine’ because they have to start building now. There are a lot of moving parts,” Stewart said. “But it’s all good. We’ve got somebody who’s a Broadway star who is willing to come and work with us. It’s a great thing, and it’s great momentum for John and his career.”

“Caroline, or Change” is a sung-through musical, meaning it has little dialogue. It’s set in Louisiana in 1963, and blends blues, gospel and traditional Jewish melodies. The principal story is about the Gellman family and their African-American maid, Caroline. Specifically, it revolves around Caroline and the Gellmans’ young son, Noah. Cariani will play Noah’s father, Stuart.

It’s a semi-autobiographical musical that Kushner wrote about his youth. Kushner and his creative partner, Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the score, were in the audition audience. “It was interesting to be in the room and get to meet him,” Cariani said of Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning author of “Angels in America.” “He drew on his experiences with his dad as he created the character, so it was kind of neat to see him see his dad in the audition.”

Kushner cried at Cariani’s portrayal of his father during the audition, the actor said.

That’s when he was confident he would get the part. Cariani always prepares for auditions, but he felt especially ready for this one. “Shakespeare said, ‘The readiness is all,’ and I try to be as ready as I can be. Sometimes you’re as ready as you can be and you tank, and sometimes you’re as ready as you can be and it goes well. I prepared as I usually do, and it was one of those special days where I felt it was going to go my way. I felt I understood the material in a pretty personal way.”

Meanwhile, he is facing a December deadline for the final edits on his novel. He’s written several plays, and this will be his first novel. He wanted to tell a larger version of the vignettes of “Almost, Maine.”

“It’s novelization of the play. It’s all the stories in ‘Almost, Maine’ in prose form with one new story that I had always wanted to tell but couldn’t because of time constraints,” he said. The new story involves a young man and woman from Portage, who reconnect at a funeral, each with something important to tell the other.

Writing the novel is “one of the most thrilling things I have ever done. It’s allowed me to create a richer portrait of northern Maine and northern Mainers, and I think that’s really necessary right now. One of the reasons Macmillan was interested in the book is because they don’t have a lot of rural stories, especially rural stories for young readers,” he said.

He consulted with Portland writer Monica Wood about the transition from writing plays to writing novels. Wood has done the opposite, going from novels and memoirs to plays. He called Wood “an inspiration” and said he turned often to her memoir about growing up in western Maine, “When We Were the Kennedys,” as he was writing his novel. “She has a matter-of-fact way of writing that blows the world up. It doesn’t feel super fancy, but it’s so beautiful at the same time. It’s so not fussy.”

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