PI-raised actor relishing new role, rise of Maine-based play
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — John Cariani, the actor who grew up in Presque Isle, is finding a lot to like about about his character in a new Broadway musical that offers a tale of common ground amid cultural conflict.
Perhaps best known for his role as a crime scene tech in the “Law and Order” series, Cariani is currently playing the role of Itzik, a young, underemployed Israeli father, in “The Band’s Visit,” a musical adapted from the 2007 Israeli film of the same name.
“It’s a story of kindness and… people who are from cultures that historically don’t get along. But the people from those cultures actually get along just fine,” Cariani said.
The story is set in 1996 and revolves around an Egyptian orchestra that was supposed to play a gig at the Arab Cultural Center in the city of Petah Tikva near Tel-Aviv, Israel. By mistake they take a bus to the similar-sounding but very different Bet Hatikva, a small town in Israel’s Negev desert where Itzik and his wife Dina operate a small cafe.
Unable to catch a bus until the next day, the band members are welcomed by the townsfolk, who feed and house them for the night.
Cariani’s character Itzik is “unemployed and has an 8-month old,” Carinai said “His wife isn’t very happy with him. She’s working and feels frustrated.”
“The magic of the story is that we’re in a little, made up town, Bet Hatikva, which means House of Hope, and my wife and I are kind of healed by taking in these strangers for the night.”
The play itself is minimalist and subtle in its message, but ends up offering a message of hope about a region of the world that continues to endure violence stemming from cultural, political and religious conflicts.
Cariani said he was thrilled to take the job, considering the reputation of the director.
“This director, David Cromer, is kind of like the great American director. Right now when David is directing something, you just audition. Actors want to work for him,” Cariani said.
Cariani also was drawn to the play being a musical that isn’t over-commercialized. “It’s a play/musical for adults, which is rare these days. On Broadway, almost everything is geared toward families, because family entertainment is a real money-maker,” Cariani said.
The show is in an open-ended run, with tickets available at least until September of 2018, Cariani said.
Meanwhile, he also has been pleasantly surprised to see a new-found popularity for his play “Almost, Maine,” a story about youth, life and love in a fictitious northern Maine town.
According to the Educational Theatre Association, “Almost, Maine” was the most performed play in American high schools in 2017.
“It’s kind of funny, because it debuted in 2004 and opened off-Broadway in 2006, and it didn’t do so well. It quietly came and went,” Cariani said.
“After it was published, it slowly got popular with professional companies all over the United States and all over the world.. And then it really started to take off in high schools a couple years ago.”
Cariani said he thinks the play has been a draw among high schools because students and teachers in rural and non-urban American can identify with it.
“A lot of teachers have told me, ‘You don’t know how much fun it was to direct a play for our kids that wasn’t either really old or set in New York City or an urban area.’ There are a lot of schools in rural areas, and that’s where it’s gotten popular,” Cariani said.
“One of the things that I’ve learned is that there’s not a lot of representation of rural America in contemporary art and culture. There’s also not a lot of respect for rural America in contemporary politics and art. I’m not really thrilled with the depiction of rural America in most art I come across because it’s often caricature.”
Many people can identify with “Almost, Maine,” because while its setting is rural, it takes on universal issues, Cariani said.
“Growing up in a rural place is like growing up anywhere: it’s complicated, people are complicated, and life is complicated.”