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February 10, 2009

MET's Latest Hits the Sky

Roy Meachum

It's been a while since we looked in on the Maryland Ensemble Theatre (MET). A cast member suggested I see "Almost, Maine:" I was there for opening night. Julie Herber didn't steer me wrong, which is consistent with what I know about the finest actress in this part of the world.


"Almost, Maine" cranks out what seems genuinely to be a laugh-a-minute. Playwright John Cariani set about writing material for auditions he took as an actor; in that persona, by the way, he received a Tony nomination for his "Fiddler on the Roof" characterization of Motel the tailor. On television he can be caught on Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Although I had never heard his name until Saturday night, he has theatrical experience as well as an Equity card.


He earned auditions for rather impressive shows; he wrote material for himself and a fellow actor, usually a woman. The MET play consists of eight two-person dialogues and shtickla. His work comes loaded with specific directions and notes, in the manner of another actor turned playwright; Harold Pinter died very recently. What Mr. Cariani turned out by particular design resembles more Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, only a whole lot funnier.


As with Godot, I wish I could tell you what the play is really about; but it would take more thinking and explanation than we can manage in this format. In any event, for much of the opening night audience the only thing that mattered was the humor: I was surrounded by surprised-out-loud people who reacted to the playwright's whimsy and the actors' playing not by rolling in the aisles, but damned near!


No small share of the credit goes to director Peter Wray, who told me he'd never seen a production of "Almost, Maine;" it's been produced lots of places including off-Broadway where The New York Times rules the theatrical roost. The Times' critic trivialized Mr. Cariani's work as a boy-meets-girl and girl-meets-boy effort. The journalist may have trouble remembering Jean Paul Sartre and Mr. Becket; he did not recognize the staged silences. No one told him.


As Mr. Wray told me, he would not take profuse plaudits for the production; he extended the credit to his cast and other MET artists. He's much too modest. He is the director who would take the kicks if the evening failed; it didn't. Knowing the operation, I can imagine there were marvelous suggestions during prep and rehearsals, but he had to choose. And that's no small talent. Anyway, he set tone for the production and hoorahs! for Peter Wray!


For the various characters he creates, Tad Janes earns the most humongous bunch of flowers I've ever sent since he started the Maryland Ensemble Theatre almost 20 years back. He balances the huge difficulties of switching from comedy to farce to bust-your-gut pratfalls. He manages them all with extraordinary discipline and suavity. He deserves cheers.


The program notes say Matt Baughman has been in other MET shows I've seen. But I never really saw him. (There is a huge difference.) He comes very close to stealing "Almost, Maine" as much for timing as anything he actually does. No one can teach theatrical timing. It's an innate talent that either you got or not. Like Mr. Janes and frequently with him, Mr. Baughman performs all the other necessaries and very well. But much of the laughter of the production he invoked by silences that seemed to last forever, which he snapped at the precisely right moment.


According to the program, I've never caught Lisa Burl earlier; it was my loss. Ms. Burl bellies up and takes on the competition magnificently; none of her fellow players leaves her in the dust. She creates a lot on her own. She's more than a fresh face behind the MET's footlights. She cavorts and chortles whatever it takes; she delivers what's needed, and a whole lot more.


As for Julie Herber, I long ago ran out of adjectives to describe her talents. In "Maybe, Maine" she performs to the very high level her fans have come to expect. Count me in that group. Brava!


This impressively bang-up spectacle hangs around only three more weeks, chiefly Thursday through Sunday, but not necessarily. I hope I've intrigued enough that you want to catch what all my enthusiasm is about.


The best way is to look up Maryland Ensemble Theatre in the book. Better yet sidle over to the old Francis Scott Key hotel; the offices are in the lower level.


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