The home in which “The Main(e) Play” unfolds is an uninviting place to return to. Spilled Lego pieces bite into unprotected feet, an unseen hell-raising kid shoots BBs at sleeping guests from offstage, and everyone in the play has a score to settle. It looks unpleasant from the get-go, but Chad Beckim’s sweet-spirited observations on rural Yankee life draw out enough laughter and goodwill to keep “The Main(e) Play” moving, even though it doesn’t have much of a dramatic raison d’etre.
For Shane (Alexander Alioto), a newly Gothamized actor returning to visit his brother and other Mainiacs, the prospect of a homecoming is a happy one at first. He’ll swing by, maybe reconnect with his old girlfriend and enjoy a pleasant Thanksgiving with his family. It doesn’t work out that way, of course, not because Shane finds his family and friends different but because he finds himself different in their presence.
Beckim clearly prizes small-town virtue over urban guile, and that easy dichotomy could kill the play right off if it weren’t for Shane’s older brother, Roy (Michael Gladis). Roy seems to be everything Beckim likes about Maine — a backhanded tribute to the guys who carry around Mountain Dew bottles of tobacco juice to avoid spitting on the rug, who smoke joints in the living room while their kids are banging around on drum sets down the hall.
For all his quirks, Roy is unshakably loyal, and not even Shane’s fey TV ads for slim-fit jeans earn him more than a good-natured ribbing from his brother when he first arrives. Things change, though, catalyzed by the suspiciously rapid arrival of Shane’s ex-girlfriend, Jess (Susan Dahl).
It’s in the scenes between Jess and Shane that Beckim downgrades his drama from a terrific play to a merely enjoyable one. Dahl is good enough in a thankless part, but Jess is alternately obnoxious and vulnerable, leaping hugely across the emotional spectrum in a way that baffles both Beckim’s characters and his audience.
Jess’ awkwardness as a character is heightened by the more surefooted observation in exchanges between Roy and Shane that almost always bookend her scenes. There’s also a scene with a girl scout selling cookies that’s so out of place, it seems to belong in another play, suggesting Beckim may be better served by his male characters.
But the good exchanges are very good, and the actors are clearly most comfortable when asked to score manly points off one another. Frequently, the cast outdoes the jokes: When Shane gets particularly fed up with Roy, for instance, he turns to their friend Rooster and announces, “Did you know that Roy used to have a Cabbage Patch Kid named Burt?” The line is pretty funny in context, but the look on Gladis’ face is a little master class on how to take a punch, verbally speaking.
In the end, though, “The Main(e) Play” does something almost unforgivable in the context of so much light, endearing writing: It craps out without ending. After one of the better scenes onstage this season, in which Shane rips into Roy for being a bad father, the play just stops being written. Beckim and director Robert O’Hara try to put a button on the final scene, but it rings false.
After convincing us to invest so much in these characters, the writer seems to have lost confidence and ended the play while he still had something left to say. And that’s a shame, because we were all ears right up to the end.