It’s not hard to understand why 11th Hour Theatre Company seized on Nick Blaemire’s chamber musical Soon for its first not-quite-post-pandemic production. The show’s protagonist, dreading a pending apocalypse, sits on her couch, scarfs down peanut butter, bakes combo muffin-cupcakes, and refuses to leave her ramshackle East Village apartment.
Soon was written and produced in 2015 at Arlington, Va.’s Signature Theatre, years before COVID-19 consigned many of us to roughly similar fates. Its portrait of fear, depression, paralysis, and the potentially healing embrace of love seems eerily prescient and still speaks to our recurrent pandemic anxieties.
That’s the good news. Unfortunately, this co-production with the Prima Theatre in Lancaster (where it played Oct. 1-23) is a narrative mess. Its 100 intermission-less minutes, with recorded rather than live music, are muddled and overstuffed and in need of a script doctor. Blaemire, who wrote the book as well as the music and lyrics, might benefit from a collaborator.
Under the direction of 11th Hour co-founder Michael Philip O’Brien and the music direction of Nathan Landis Funk, a diverse four-person ensemble tries to animate Soon with charm and conviction and some sweet singing of mostly forgettable songs.
Imani Moss, as Charlie, is heart-rending when she needs to be. Matt Donzella’s Jonah, her improbable love interest, gamely attempts to rouse her from her torpor. (“You don’t stop trying because there’s a time limit!” Jonah tells Charlie. “There’s always a time limit!”) Carmen Castillo as Stevie, Charlie’s sensation-seeking roommate, and Barrymore Award winner Ebony Pullum as Adrienne, Charlie’s frighteningly self-involved mother, bring presence to underwritten roles.
The problem is Blaemire’s storytelling, which is not just nonlinear but downright baffling at times. As suggested in the script, O’Brien tries to clarify the zigzagging timeline by telling us, via projections, which month (though not year) we are in. That helps less than it should. The other principal temporal indicator is whether Herschel, the Jewish goldfish who inspires the musical’s liveliest number, resides in a bowl or a drinking glass.
Compounding the convoluted time sequencing are thematic and other confusions. Beyond the borrowings from Rent — the East Village setting, preoccupation with death, and “no day but today” credo — what is this show trying to tell us? Is it mostly about climate change, health-care inequities, dysfunctional families, fear of intimacy, or (the obvious answer) all of the above?
Another conundrum: Are the characters in Soon facing a climate catastrophe that will destroy all human life in a matter of months — a high-concept riff on our current climate crisis? Or are Daniel Kontz’s fantastical (but plucked from the news) projections of fire and flood, along with CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer’s gloomy prognostications, merely Charlie’s hallucinogenic nightmares? In Soon, it’s not immediately clear which catastrophe — the global or the personal — is more pressing.
Soon contains the nub of a clever, timely piece that might have wide currency — if 11th Hour’s staging turns out to be just a step in a process that still has a long way to go. The show continues through Nov. 7 at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Philadelphia.
Soon is presented by 11th Hour Theatre Company at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St., through Nov. 7. Proof of vaccination, photo ID, and masks are required. Tickets: $40 general admission, $15 for students and industry, $20 for streaming. Information: 267-987-9865 or 11thhourtheatrecompany.org.