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Now. Here. This.

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen, Susan Blackwell, and Heidi Blickenstaff
Photo by Carol Rosegg

"We're taking you with us on our quest for more life," explains Hunter Bell near the start of the new musical Now. Here. This., which just opened at the Vineyard Theatre. That statement is both accurate and misleading. The former because, in terms of their prowess as performers and comedians, Bell and his [title of show] cohorts Jeff Bowen, Susan Blackwell, and Heidi Blickenstaff could not possibly demonstrate more flesh-and-blood vibrancy than they do in this purported exploration of Thomas Merton's theory about seizing all the present moment has to offer. And the latter because, despite the most fervent attempts from the cast, director-choreographer Michael Berresse, and musical director Larry Pressgrove, their show would have trouble demonstrating less.

This state of affairs is less contradictory than it might seem. Anyone who saw [title of show], whether in its first and best incarnation at the inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004, at the Vineyard in 2006, or during its brief Broadway stay in 2008, knows that this sextet is unusually capable of making the quirky seem as natural and inevitable as taking a breath. That the actors are immensely likable, and not conventionally overpolished (at least by current musical-theatre standards), only adds to their freshly convincing "kids-next-door" appeal. And when the four of them, being themselves (or a reasonable stage facsimile thereof), are positioned at the absolute center of this show, all is right with the New York theatre world.

Within the confines of the current theatre season, for example, it's tough to find a musical number more instantly endearing than this show's "That Makes Me Hot." It's not what you think: The subject isn't sexual stimulation but, as Bell clarifies, "those moments when you're slammed into the now, here, this quite unexpectedly and it's not such a taste sensation." These include faking cosmetology skills, dealing with an (ahem) improperly dressed fiancé when your conservative parents come to town, knocking down a schoolmate with a prosthetic leg in a mad dash to the lunch line, or getting caught by your dad in the middle of an act of self-gratification. Everyone has had experiences like these, but these four people (and Bowen's blithe lyrics and jaunty pop-tinged melody) recast them in unfamiliar, yet entirely sensible, terms.

And good luck tracking down a ballad more warmly honest or surprising than "Archer," in which Bell imagines his ideal romance with the man who dispenses 3D glasses at the natural history museum (whom Hunter has never met): It's a charming, stream-of-consciousness fantasy that the aw-shucks Bell makes feel completely real. Or a more touching tribute to the intimacies of friendship than Blickenstaff's "Then Comes You." Or a more involving scene than the largely jokeless meditation by Bell and Blickenstaff of what their grandmothers meant to them, and taught them in their final days. The show is full of such moments, for everyone, that lets them extend their comic chops, their voices, and most importantly their personalities right across the lip of the stage and into your heart.

The problem is less with what they're saying than with how they're saying it. The conceit of the quartet visiting the museum by way of a Groupon is used primarily to usher in what is essentially a revue, and not always a sensible one. The opening scene depicts (via Richard DiBella's projections) the formation of Earth and the unpredictability of probability that's led us to wherever we are today. The invocation of the show ("more life"), however, occurs on the crest of Merton's edict to never let yourself be somewhere else at some other time. Yet except for the scraps of museum interstitial material—which is primarily a laugh delivery mechanism—the individual turns are nothing but recollections of and reflections on times, places, and activities that no longer exist.

It's a powerful disconnect and it hurts the show, because you're never sure what you're watching or why. One suspects that the point is you can never arrive at "here" without progressing through many other places, and it's the accumulation of your experiences that makes you who you are now. But the four are so insistent, right up until the final scene, about embracing what is rather than what was or what never was, that that's not a satisfactory conclusion, either. You want to adopt the stated message, both because of the messengers and because of what they claim the content is, but working through the puzzle of what the evening really means is almost too much work to be worth the trouble. And aside from typical, well-meaning bromides about acknowledging love, making others proud of you, living up to your promise and the like, there's not a lot of meat here.

Where Now. Here. This. soars is where its predecessor did: with the performers and their language. Cuddly Bell, intense Bowen, deadpan Susan, and deceptively effusive Heidi wield their often Seinfeld-esque words and observations with masterful skill and flawless comic timing. They're so compelling in fact, operating under Berresse's light-handed staging, that you can't help but become invested in everything they say about their personal histories. The prospect of knowing these people when they were growing up is alluring, to be sure. But the more you dwell on it, the further away from the show you drift. After all, you're not living in the now, here, this any more than they are, something that makes the relevance and relatability of what they say and sing not cosmic than skin-deep.

Now. Here. This.
Through April 22
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Vineyard Theatre

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