For 15 years, Deborah Zoe Laufer has been writing plays on such diverse subjects as family dysfunction, the end of the world and medical ethics. More often than not, her scripts stem from something she heard on National Public Radio.
Certainly that is the case with Be Here Now, Laufer’s latest thought-provoking comedy, opening at Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab this Friday, in an East Coast premiere under her direction.
As she recalls, “I heard a podcast about this woman talking about how she’d had these headaches and these seizures and they were giving her these really ecstatic religious experiences. She had this new kind of joy in her life that she’d never had before. And then she found out that it was a brain tumor and she had to have it removed.
“The feelings went away and she was really miserable.”
What the playwright learned about was Geschwind Syndrome, a mysterious medical condition that could explain many people of the past who marched to different drummers. “They think that maybe Joan of Arc had Geschwind Syndrome,” she notes. “There are people who had these incredible visions.”
To dramatize the condition, Laufer invented a character named Bari, a loveless atheist who used to teach a college course on nihilism, the philosophy that nothing in life has meaning.
And then Bari meets Mike, a guy who rummages through trash for discarded objects. Far from being a cheapskate scavenger, he uses these objects to construct houses, a pursuit that has earned him a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. Yes, that far-fetched description of designated “genius” is also based in reality.
“I looked on the MacArthur website and there are a few of them actually,” says Laufer. “Part of the story of the play is there are things around us that we could look at as garbage and people that we could look at as beneath us. But if you look deeply enough, you can find meaning and purpose and a use for almost anything that’s discarded.”
Bari is a purposely extreme character. “I wanted her to have a long journey. She’s a few people I know. Including myself,” says Laufer. “I guess I’m in all of my characters, but Bari is very near and dear to my heart.”
The character is so extreme in her nihilism that theatergoers might turn off to her. But as Laufer puts it, “I usually find if a character is struggling, we feel for them. We want to watch somebody fighting for something. Once she finds that she wants to keep this kind of joy in her life, I think we can relate to that. I think in all my plays there are moments where you think, ‘Oh, I hate this person.’ I like to look at people we feel are so different and then we recognize ourselves along the way.”
Bari finds herself falling in love with Mike, or maybe that is merely the influence of the Geschwind Syndrome. And what is love anyway, but a series of internal impulses?
“I’m very fact-science based. I often wonder, ‘Are we just chemical and electrical impulses?’ People can change so much based on hormones or what’s going through their bodies,” says Laufer. “If your personality can change so drastically, are we just responding to chemical or electrical impulses? Do we owe a debt to who we actually are or do we owe a debt to find who we could be? Do we have a responsibility to search for happiness and joy and meaning?”
Be Here Now was commissioned by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. But for its first developmental reading, Laufer sent it to Lou Tyrrell at FAU.
“He’s been my champion for 15 years,” she says. “He did my first professional production, he gave me my first commission, he produced almost everything I ever sent him and he’s given me five or six readings and he gave me my first job as a director. He just had confidence in me. I can’t ask for more than that.”
“All of her plays embody an incredible humanity,” says Tyrrell, who introduced her to audiences with The Last Schwartz in 2002 and most recently produced her Three Sisters of Weehawken. “It begins with a character’s perspective of the world, with vulnerabilities and eccentricities that are so recognizable, so real and tragic yet so funny.
“Deb would be the first one to not try to take herself too seriously. Yet her voice in the theater is one of the most serious I’ve encountered in my career. She can tackle these major life issues with the extraordinary balance of poignance and humor.”
More and more, Laufer directs her plays, such as Weehawken at FAU Theatre Lab and Informed Consent at GableStage last year. “I wish I’d gotten to direct each of my plays before I published them. First of all, I find what is not necessarily clear on the page and needs to be in the stage directions. And it’s a really good way to hone it before publication.” she says. “Directing makes me a better playwright, I really believe that. It’s all storytelling.”
Tyrrell gave Laufer her first directing job on a hunch that she could do it. “The hunch was there but also you can’t write what she does, the nuance of character, that very unique perspective without having great instincts for getting it on a stage,” he explains.
“I think she is one of those consummate women of the theater that are capable of all of it.”
After FAU, Be Here Now already has another production lined up, at Georgia’s Aurora Theatre. “I told the artistic director there that the comedy comes out of a deep sadness. I think the play comes from a real terror of mortality, a real understanding that we have a short time here and we should make the most of it. And maybe we should look twice at people we think are beneath us, not worthy of our time.
“It is a comedy and I want my laughs. I’m a laugh whore. I’m sad if I don’t get my laughs. But I think it’s a pretty serious play.”
By now, Laufer estimates that she has had about 100 productions of her plays around the country, as well as in Germany, Russia, Canada and Australia.
Leveling Up, her play about slackers fixated on video games, was optioned for Broadway, but that fell through, a disappointment she should be used to by now. “It’s hard to get something to Broadway,” concedes Laufer. “This is my eighth commercial option for New York and all eight fell through.”
Perhaps Be Here Now will be her commercial breakthrough. “I think it might be my favorite of my plays,” she says. “I think it’s funny, but it’s also beautiful. I think it has something in there that people will want to hear about. I think people walk out seeing the world a little differently after they’ve seen it.”
BE HERE NOW, FAU Theatre Lab, 777 Glades Road, Parliament Hall, Florida Atlantic University campus, Boca Raton. April 6-22. $35. 561-297-6124.