SouthFlorida.com
Make every weekend epic with our free Weekender newsletter. Sign up today!

Review: In Theatre Lab's 'Be Here Now,' happiness is complicated

Correspondent

Playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer has never been afraid of taking on the big questions. Her work explores contemporary life with intelligence, insight and sharp humor. It resonates, in part, because Laufer’s writing makes room for life’s dualities: joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, exhilaration and depression.

All those emotional colors exist within “Be Here Now,” a beautifully crafted new Laufer play at Theatre Lab on the Florida Atlantic University campus in Boca Raton.

After a February world premiere at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park, which commissioned the play, “Be Here Now” is getting a second production at the more intimate Theatre Lab, which had a developmental reading of the piece two years ago. Laufer and Theatre Lab artistic director Louis Tyrrell go way back to 2002, when he helped launch her career by giving the playwright her first professional production (of “The Last Schwartz”) at his former company, Florida Stage.

As with Theatre Lab’s world premiere of her “Three Sisters of Weehawken” last season, Laufer is both author and director of this intricately calibrated production of “Be Here Now.” Her cast and collaborators vividly illuminate the questions embedded in the script, including this central one: How do we get through this thing called life?

Laufer’s antiheroine is Bari (Laura Turnbull), an emotionally flattened Ph.D. candidate who teaches courses about — wait for it — nihilism. Bari has spent eight agonizing years trying to write her dissertation while teaching in Manhattan, but until she climbs that last academic mountain, she has to stay out of the classroom.

So she has returned to East Cooperville, her (fictional) hometown two hours north of the center of her universe. As she tries to crack the dissertation, she earns a little money working at a fulfillment center run by her childhood friend, Patty Cooper (Elizabeth Dimon). Bari’s only other co-worker at the place, which ships made-in-China “authentic” Himalayan and Tibetan gifts to customers near and far, is Luanne Cooper (Gretchen Porro), Patty’s perpetually giddy niece.

On a spectrum of emotion, Luanne is at the high end, Patty in the middle, Bari at the low end. Turns out Luanne and Patty have achieved happiness in part because of the mood-altering drugs their doctor has prescribed. Bari, perturbed by Patty’s varied attempts to cheer her up, gives both women grief about their chemically enhanced contentment. Not for nothing does she teach nihilism.

Soon, though, Bari enters her own altered state. Plagued by sudden headaches, she suffers seizures and passes out. As she awakens, she sees bright color auras, smells a distinctive smell, hears sounds and, miraculously, feels an energized bliss. She doesn’t yet know that she’s suffering from Geschwind syndrome due to a brain tumor. But the way the disease alters her personality — making her talkative, enthusiastic, prolific in her writing, crazy for sex — is something she doesn’t want to give up.

The other person most affected by Bari’s precarious state is Mike Cooper (Desmond Gallant), Patty’s cousin. An apparent oddball of an artist who rides his old bicycle all over town scavenging discarded objects to use in his work, Mike is not at all what he seems. His back story is tragic, and he has returned home to East Cooperville to hide away as he tries to make amends for the unforgivable.

Neither Mike nor Bari, each a damaged soul, is capable of a relationship. But the connection they make, those meandering life paths that brought them together in this moment, will make a difference for both of them going forward.

As director, Laufer has cast “Be Here Now” with four accomplished actors whose mastery of the play’s emotional colors is endearing, engaging and deeply moving.

Turnbull, last seen locally giving a razor-sharp performance in Zoetic Stage’s world premiere of “Wrongful Death and Other Circus Acts,” is equally powerful in “Be Here Now.” Brittle at first, Turnbull soars through Bari’s complicated bliss while still conveying the self-absorption that contributed to her closed-off life.

Dimon, her spiky gray hair decorated with a swath of hot pink, seems to transform into each character she plays. Her delivery is natural yet virtuosic, and as Patty she rides the waves of Laufer’s comedy like a world-class surfer.

Porro’s Luanne is literally all over the place at the fulfillment center, joyfully putting tchotchkes into shipping boxes, trading sexually explicit cell-phone photos with her guy of the moment, trying to heal Bari without actually touching her. Yes, she’s manic, but as Porro plays her, Luanne is irresistible.

Gallant, chair of FAU’s Department of Theatre and Dance as well as Theatre Lab’s producing director, gives a masterful performance as Mike. At first eccentric and mysterious, Gallant’s shattered man is, like Bari, trying somehow to get through a life that no longer seems worth living. Gallant’s work is subtle, multifaceted, profound.

Theatre Lab’s design team again achieves big things in the theater’s small space. Michael McClain’s set, cluttered with discards and detritus, makes room for the entrances and exits of the tidy fulfillment center in the middle. Jayson Tomasheski’s carefully placed, vividly colored lighting and Matt Corey’s sound design communicate Bari’s hallucinations. Dawn C. Shamburger’s costumes put Bari in Manhattanite black, Patty and Luanne in outfits they might have bought at their little town’s Walmart, Mike in the comfortable (maybe secondhand) clothes of an isolated guy focused only on artistic creation.

Laufer’s vivid voice sugarcoats nothing in “Be Here Now.” As playwright and director, she takes the audience on an emotional journey that serves up hilarity, sorrow and more. And yet, as the play comes to a close, she offers a grace note of hope — that two suffering souls may yet find warmth and rebirth.

“Be Here Now” is running through April 22 in Parliament Hall on the Florida Atlantic University Campus, 777 Glades Road, in Boca Raton. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $35. To order, call 561-297-6124 or go to FAUevents.com.

Copyright © 2018, South Florida
69°