What causes some of us to see joy in the world and others to see pure gloom? And if the difference between the two perspectives were caused by a brain tumor, would you accept a potentially fatal condition for a temporarily rosy outlook?
That is the dilemma facing Bari, a former professor of nihilism and avowed cynic, in Deborah Zoe Laufer’s quirky and ultimately life-affirming romantic comedy, Be Here Now, currently playing at FAU Theatre Lab in a production directed by the playwright.
We first meet Bari (the sublime Laura Turnbull) at a yoga class in which she wordlessly conveys her defeatist attitude towards everything. That impression is only intensified when we next see her at her dead-end job, fulfilling mail orders for kitsch figurines alongside two chipper co-workers, Luanne and Patty.
Yet as soon as we size up Bari as a hopeless pessimist, she has a seizure and her mood shifts 180 degrees. Improbable? Perhaps, but such is a symptom of Geschwind’s syndrome, a real if rare condition known to bring about personality changes including intensified sexuality.
Her sudden randiness is soon tested when Bari gets fixed up on a lunch date with Mike, a guy with a tragic past and uncertain present. Bari is appalled to see him rummage through the trash near their restaurant, but her attitude reverses when she learns he was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant for designing and constructing houses from found objects.
Laufer is a similar collector of found facts, and Be Here Now works because it hinges on far-fetched realities like Geschwind’s and the MacArthur grant for garbage houses. Factor in a skill at crafting vivid characters and an innate depth of humanity and you have one of the best scripts from a major writer who was first showcased by Theatre Lab artistic director Lou Tyrrell 16 years ago (The Last Schwartz).
Bari is an extreme, yet believable naysayer, still grappling with her unfinished doctorate dissertation on the philosophy that nothing matters. Mike is her direct opposite. Although he lost his family in a car crash years earlier, he embraces life, seeing the potential in what others discard. And whenever Bari challenges the many hard-to-buy details of his world, Mike shrugs her off with a simple, flat-toned “OK.” Still, true to the rom-com formula, they will affect each other in positive ways as they move ahead to an uncertain future together.
Turnbull anchors the production, bringing to it her inherent likability, which helps us to warm to curmudgeonly Bari. More of a surprise is Des Gallant, former Florida Stage literary manager and current chair of FAU’s Department of Theatre and Dance, as scavenger Mike. Long absent from performing, he builds an amusingly detailed character who is understandably wary of everything about Bari.
In her sixth collaboration with Laufer, Elizabeth Dimon lends solid support as Bari’s childhood friend Patty. She is parental in her concern over Bari’s medical crisis yet a bit whimsical, with a patch of pink in her otherwise gray hair. Filling out the cast is Gretchen Porro as fulfillment center co-worker Luanne, a dim bulb but with a perpetually sunny outlook.
Resident Theatre Lab scenic designer Michael McClain again demonstrates his mastery of the cramped Parliament Hall performance space. With a fold-out set and a few other pieces, he roots the action at a yoga studio, fulfillment center, Mike’s humble hovel, a hospital room and a restaurant exterior.
Laufer does not make it easy on her designers or her cast members. But at FAU Theatre Lab, she coalesces them into a satisfying production of a play for our time and, perhaps, for all time.
BE HERE NOW, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, 777 Glades Road, Florida Atlantic University campus, Boca Raton. Through April 22. $35. 561-297-6124.