Pictured above (from left): Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen, Susan Blackwell, and Heidi Blickenstaff in the new musical NOW.HERE.THIS. / Photo by Carol Rosegg
When the ensemble of NOW.HERE.THIS. explain the origin of the title of the show (and since this group was also responsible for the quirky meta-theatrical production [title of show], it seems oh-so-important) is from the teachings of Thomas Merton (a proto-self-help guru), it could mean we in the audience are in for one helluva earnest theater experience. And in lesser hands, that would probably be the case. But here, Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics), Hunter Bell, Susan Blackwell (book), and Heidi Blickenstaff sing and explain their way through moments in their lives to reveal some deeper truths and entertain along the way. Is it profound stuff? At times. Is it fun and compelling? Almost always.
The quartet play theatrical versions of themselves as they take a trip through a natural history museum. The conceit feels contrived at points, as they set up scenarios that relate to their own personal loves, losses, and how they landed here in this theater. If it had been an MFA writing program (which at times is what it feels like with its confessional, therapeutic tone), then the players would have received some serious shit for being so navel-gaze-y and self-indulgent. But since they come off as such sincere, awshucks types of Gen-X comrades (especially Hunter Bell with his redheaded insanity)--and reveal their flaws, quirks and all--I'm more inclined to resist that knee-jerk need to criticize them for being so caught up in exploring their life experiences. Maybe it's because some of Bell's and Bowen's explanations of their gay experiences hit close to home, or because they are so gosh-darn endearing, but NOW.HERE.THIS. left me feeling optimistic and happier. Which doesn't always happen at the theater--and it's OK when it does.
NOW.HERE.THIS at Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., NYC. March 28-April 28. Tue., 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 3 p.m. 212-353-0303 or www.vineyardtheatre.org.