This is a serenely clarifying moment, and one of the few legitimate surprises this well-meaning but well-worn evening delivers. Unlike Salzman and Cunningham’s previous major New York credit, the delightful I Love You Because (which played Off-Broadway in 2006), Next Thing You Know is much less concerned with its story than with its mood. But because that mood is, well, moodiness, its pleasures are fewer and gentler in nature — and its emotional (and entertainment) impact considerably less. If you’re at least in your own 30s, you’ll recognize this group’s quarter-life crisis as the imposing threshold for them it is. Otherwise, the show rarely resonates on levels more significant or original than that.
Pure invention is particularly rare, but one song has it to spare. Luke (Heath Calvert) is attempting to pick up Waverly (Lauren Molina), the evening bartender at the Sullivan Street Tavern. She has a boyfriend, she insists, and she’s heard every line before. But as a salesman at an ad agency, Luke is persistent and persuasive. His pitch: The best reason for her to go home with him is that he’s a killer cook, and breakfast the next day will be a uniquely memorable experience. “Morning After Omelet,” as the number is called, is a winning and unexpected blend of dorky and cool, and desperate and suave, putting all of Luke's contradictions on clever display.
But almost everything else is more pedestrian, if technically accomplished. Waverly’s boyfriend of four years is Darren (Adam Kantor), a struggling playwright who's slowly losing the ability to be supportive of non-auditioning actress Waverly. When she's offered the opportunity to take her "survival" job at a law firm full time, she decides she's not ready to give up either her childhood dream or her childhood — and walks out on Darren. Waverly’s best friend, Lisa (Lauren Blackman), faces a similar problem on a larger scale: She came to New York with the hope of meeting her perfect partner and being swept off to L.A., but is ready to give up and set out for the West Coast herself. Tying everything together, Darren is the last man Lisa dated before she came out, Darren also temps at Luke’s agency, and the two men just happen to frequent the same Village bar, just at different times.
Cunningham has a knack for real-world humor that keeps everyone feeling genuine — one scene, in which Darren and Luke become better acquainted by speaking entirely through their computers — is especially clever; and Salzman's music is a smile-inducing blend of pop and honky-tonk that always sounds right for these all-over-the-map characters. But the paint-by-numbers complications and coincidences wear thin after a while, as do the numerous songs full of plot-pushing, surface-skimming sentiments, and the fact that they all add up to very little. The shallow misunderstandings are easily (and quickly) resolved, which doesn't amplify the drama, and the lack of any outside context for the quartet's troubles makes them seem so self-absorbed that it's often difficult to care whether they'll ever come out of their respective funks.
Luckily, director Terry Berliner (whose staging is efficient but uninspired) has assembled a genuinely likable cast to help fill in some of these holes. Kantor fully realizes Darren's supportive bitterness; Blackman puts a bewitching, positive spin on Lisa's despondency; Calvert is ingratiating in the way he shrugs every conflict (including that which he creates); and Molina finds moving shading in Waverly's crippling stasis. The actors are even responsible for some choice bits of eye-grabbing contrast: Calvert's towering over Kantor is good for a laugh or two when Luke and Darren go out on the town; and Blackman's sturdy, businesslike demeanor and Waverly's free-thinking style would seem to better match the other's character, always keeping you on your toes about who belongs where and with whom.
If only the rest of the musical took as many chances. Salzman and Cunningham possess thoughtful, optimistic voices, which helps them temper the cynicism this subject matter could easily fall victim to. But brevity and even-handedness can also be taken to extremes, and those qualities don't let Next Thing You Know pierce you as deeply — or elevate you as high — as it obviously wants to. The characters, when they find themselves at the threshold of understanding why drinking binges aren't always smart past 25 or so, may be hungover from their twenties. But the show they're in is not yet quite intoxicating enough to bestow you with the same affliction.
Next Thing You Know