nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
March 23, 2012
Alas, Now. Here. This., doesn’t open with Hunter Bell, Susan Blackwell, Heidi Blickenstaff, and Jeff Bowen walking out on stage and shouting “We’re Back!” to the rapturous applause and whooping cheers of their adoring audience. The follow-up to their cult favorite [title of show] has a lot more ambitious things on its plate than a simple meta-reference that, let’s face it, only a handful of theater geeks such as myself would go gaga over. Things like finding your place in the world. Things like living in the present and cherishing the precious moments of our daily life. Things like not letting your past experiences and future worries get you down, because tomorrow hasn’t happened yet and the yesterdays, all of those great and horrible yesterdays, are over.
Borrowing its title from the philosophy of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Now. Here. This. explores the quartet’s quest to live solely in the now, here in the present, while only concerning themselves with this particular activity. In order to live in the now-here-this, Bell and Blackwell (who wrote the book) and Bowen (who wrote the score) assert that they must come to terms with their respective pasts and accept how their experiences have helped them grow. The semi-autobiographical piece, which features direction and choreography by Michael Berresse and musical direction by Larry Pressgrove (who this time conducts a small band as opposed to just himself on a keyboard), examines the (presumably fact-based) pasts of its performers and collaborators, their secrets, their miseries, their heartbreaks, in the form of a musical collage as they explore the various halls of the Museum of Natural History.
Each performer has the opportunity to peel back the curtain on their lives, and stories range from Blickenstaff’s quest for attention to Bowen’s youthful struggle to accept his homosexuality. It’s impossible to deny the goofy charm of the four performers and that they’re clearly relishing being on stage, together again, at the Vineyard Theatre.
Bell and Blackwell’s book features the same heart and occasionally dizzying meta-humor which made [title of show] so endearing and, to Berresse’s credit, the piece never feels disjointed. Yet the museum conceit never quite works; despite charismatic voiceover narration by Roger Rees and a nifty set and projections by Neil Patel and Richard DiBella respectively, the setting is both confusing and distancing when it should be as warm and inviting as the performers are. And the writers could afford to explain their easy-to-miss throughline, that they’re going to “open up our mental knapsacks and shake out a few stories,” in greater detail. Bowen’s musical score, which ranges in style from Irish-ish sea shanty to country western to funk, is appealing enough (the lyrics are stronger), but the songs never quite reach the level of his best work, namely [title of show]’s “A Way Back to Then,” one of the most honest-to-god beautiful show tunes in recent memory.
What I enjoyed most about Now. Here. This. was seeing the demonstrable growth in the performers and their work. Gone is the inside baseball humor and self-congratulatory pats on the back they displayed in [title of show]. Now they’re just being honest. And because of this, they’ve crafted a much more satisfying piece.