Here’s a Present: Now. Here. This. Is Giddy Philosophical Fun

But 'Strad' is tone deaf

Bell, Bowen and Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff in 'Now. Here. This.' (Photo by Carol Rosegg)

Even though I was supposed to, I didn’t love [title of show] a few years back.

The sweet little musical, about people obsessed with musicals making a sweet little musical, was supposed to be catnip for musicals-obsessed people like me. But it wasn’t: I found it charming and endearing, but slight. It was a 90-minute show that seemed at least 30 minutes too long. Perhaps the problem was that I saw it too late, not at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, where it debuted, or at the off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre, where it became a hit, but on Broadway, where its will-we-make-it-to-Broadway storyline was a foregone conclusion (and where it ran for a mere three months).

Now the [title of show] gang is back at the Vineyard with their new show, Now. Here. This., and this time I’m pleased to say I loved it.

It’s another goofy, self-referential show starring Hunter Bell, Susan Blackwell, Heidi Blickenstaff and Jeff Bowen as four goofy, likeable friends named Hunter, Susan, Heidi, and Jeff. Mr. Bowen once again wrote the songs; Mr. Bell once again wrote the book, this time along with Ms. Blackwell. Michael Berresse once again directs and choreographs, and Larry Pressgrove is once again the music director, though this time he leads a four-piece, off-stage orchestra, rather than sitting onstage as a lone keyboardist.

But Now. Here. This. isn’t just silly and jokey; it also has some real existential heft.

Don’t be scared by that word. This isn’t Beckett; it’s a musical that opens with an extended joke about Mr. Bell confusing “cosmology” with “cosmetology.” It’s existential in a Chorus Line way, if A Chorus Line contained dorky references to late-’80s sitcoms: four performers talking and sometimes singing about their backgrounds and childhoods, their hopes and dreams, the disappointments and coming-outs and weird family relationships that made them who they are. Mr. Berresse, the director, who keeps the pace brisk and the tone bright even when the characters get philosophical, not incidentally played Zach, the director, in the 2006 A Chorus Line revival.

The title, we’re informed in the play’s first scene, comes from the work of the Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton, who argued for fully experiencing life by living in the moment. On a tour through a natural-history museum, the gang views exhibits and extrapolates lessons, often very funny lessons, by looking back at the past in order to do a better job of appreciating the present.

They do so with a giddy sense of fun. Mr. Bell is the weakest actor of the bunch, but he’s also perhaps the most engaging, a puckish teddy bear eager for approval. Ms. Blackwell has wonderful comic delivery; she can easily earn a quick laugh with no more than a raised eyebrow or deadpan double-take. Ms. Blickenstaff is the best singer, and Mr. Bowen serves as a sort of gay straight man, the glue holding this crew together.

Mr. Bowen’s best contributions are his sweet, clever lyrics, with their warm messages, grab bag of cultural allusions, and unexpected rhymes. Here’s the gang early in the show, on the profound unlikelihood of the universe putting all of them, and the audience, in the same place at the same time:

“What are the odds/ That we would get to jam together like a pack of bubble yum?/ What are the odds/ That we would get to swirl and mix up like a cinnamon bun?/ What are the odds/ That we’d be rockin’ out like Zepp’lin under Food Emporium?/ What are the odds?/ Probably about an Ann Jillian gazillion to one.”

At which point an image of the TV-film star is projected on the upstage wall (and an audience member might wonder if the show can play at any venue other than the Vineyard, located, yes, beneath a supermarket).

It’s an unusual and hard-to-pull-off combination, courting profundity while maintaining irreverence. But it works, and that mix of sweet and silly, allusive and insightful, maintains throughout. Now. Here. This. is a show that uses ironic distance to make an argument for wholesome self-actualization.

“Cheesy but great,” I wrote in my notebook, as the play ended with a surprisingly heartfelt number about diving into life. I was in the moment, and enjoying it.

A request to the theatrical scenic designers: When your show is set in New York, and you’re playing to New York audiences, and the script quite specifically refers to a grand apartment on Fifth Avenue, please do not project on the upstage wall a large, dual-towered, clearly Central Park West apartment house. We get that you’re trying to convey grandiosity, which is less clearly connoted by the East Side’s reserved rectangles, but we locals know the San Remo when we see it, and we know it’s not on Fifth.

This design error (it’s by Neil Patel, who also did the  successful projection-based work in Now. Here. This.) is one of several problems in The Morini Strad, an overwrought, schematic new drama by Willy Holtzman that opened in a Primary Stages production at 59E59 Theaters Tuesday night, directed by Casey Childs, the Primary Stages executive producer.

The play is based on at least a rough sketch of the life of the real violin prodigy Erica Morini, a Viennese Jewish refugee who never gained the lasting fame her talent deserved and owned a legendary Stradivarius that was stolen just before her death in New York in 1995. It turns on the relationship between an aged Morini (Mary Beth Peil) and the also real, younger, unknown violin maker and restorer named Brian (Michael Laurence), who softens her heart and is in turn inspired by her to rededicate himself to creating new instruments instead of repairing old ones. (Why this devoted luthier is surprised to discover the famous instrument when he is summoned to her home remains unclear.) Opening with Morini instructing an offstage student and studded with dreamlike solos by a young violinist (Hannah Stuart) who suggests a young Morini, The Morini Strad plays mostly as a histrionic knockoff of Terrence McNally’s Master Class.

But Morini was no Callas, Mr. Holtzman is no McNally, and Mary Beth Peil, the able veteran who plays Morini as a mean, mercurial old bat, is no match for Tyne Daly’s queen-diva turn in Master Class last summer. A great instrument produces a lustrous, memorable tone, this play informs us—The Morini Strad doesn’t.

Here’s a Present: Now. Here. This. Is Giddy Philosophical Fun