Hunter, Jeff, Susan and Heidi are back, and if that news sends you gleefully running down to Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theater, you’re sure to be rewarded. If it leaves you scratching your head, lower your expectations accordingly. “Now. Here. This.” is likable enough, and a couple of steps up from the quartet’s cult-fave outing “[title of show],” but still doesn’t quite deliver on its lofty aspirations. It’s like watching someone else’s group therapy session, albeit one filled with interesting personalities.
“[title of show],” the semi-autobiographical tuner about four friends who collaborate on a self-referential musical, looked out of place, underwritten and underpopulated in its 2008 Broadway run, but its enduring appeal to fans — in a 2004 bow at New York Musical Theater Festival and two successful subsequent runs at the Vineyard — suggested the team had accumulated a rabid, if relatively small, fanbase.
Here the endearing foursome (along with their former director-choreographer, Michael Berresse, and musical director, Larry Pressgrove) have reconvened for a tuner that, far from being about nothing (as “[title of show]” was), is literally about everything: the world, the universe, existential sea turtles. The characters — or is it the actors? — take a trip to the Museum of Natural History and discuss cosmology, cosmetology, how they were awkward at school and their relationships with fathers and grandmothers.
They do so with a good deal of humor and some effective songs, in a polished and professional production that makes “[title of show]” look as though it were designed by a ninth-grade drama club. But at the end of the day, how many jokes do we want to hear about Hunter Bell’s trouble finding a boyfriend?
The quartet remains attractive and friendly, and as before, Susan Blackwell stands out as the more-or-less adult of the group. A comedienne who can raise a laugh by raising an eyebrow, she also demonstrates abilities here as a dramatic actor and writer (billed as co-librettist with Bell). Two of the strongest sections of the one-act musical are speeches delivered, and presumably written, by Blackwell: one about discovering herself as a writer at the MacDowell Artists Colony in New Hampshire, and one about growing up an outcast in a “hoarding house” filled with old newspapers and bags full of trash.
Bell and Jeff Bowen play musical-comedy versions of themselves, with Bell retaining his pleasant persona while Bowen is here somewhat more aggressive than in his prior incarnation. Bowen’s score, as before, suggests he may be an interesting composer-lyricist when he gets around to writing on a larger scale. Heidi Blickenstaff (“The Little Mermaid”) (“The Addams Family”) remains the normal one of the group.
“Who needs reality when you can live in fantasy?” goes one of the final songs, and that pretty much sums up the world of Hunter, Jeff, Susan and Heidi for 100 reasonably entertaining minutes. But although “Now. Here. This.” is not aimless, it does leave you with a nagging feeling of “Should. We. Care.”