What if happiness was not only a choice, but a side effect?
That’s the intriguing premise of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play Be Here Now, which she also directs with depth and quirky humor at Everyman Theatre in a production that brightens the gloom and gray of midwinter with a joyful reminder to live in the moment even when the only positive thing you can say about your day is that you are still above ground.
Bari (Beth Hylton, equally commanding as a wretch and a radiant being) is a fortyish professor working at an Asian tchotchke distribution center in update New York. She is unable to complete her dissertation on nihilism that will allow her to keep teaching so she is gift-wrapping ersatz Buddhas and kvetching about her life.
And Bari is a world-class grump. Even at the age of five, Bari seemed to be in the clutches of existential angst. Her long-time friend Patty Cooper (a tough-as-nails and tender Katy Carkuff) recalls that she once asked the kindergartener Bari if she wanted to play, and the tot replied “I don’t play with cretins.”
Cynicism and perpetual poop bobbing in the cereal bowl—that’s Bari. You may wonder why people like Patty, who terms her friend’s state of mind as “smug gloom,” and her ebullient niece Luanne (Shubhango Kuchibhotla, who is the living embodiment of a joyful exclamation mark), put up with her. On the other hand, even Oscar the Grouch has pals on Sesame Street.
Not only does Patty tolerate her friend, but she’s fixing her up with a relative, Mike (Kyle Prue), a reluctant genius who makes astonishing structures out of abandoned items. Their first encounter is sweetly awkward, as two damaged people with limited social skills try to connect, but keep saying and doing the most comically wrong things.
Then there’s Bari’s headaches that are worsening to the point where she’s having seizures and hallucinating. But her seizures are transformational—in the grips of a hallucination the world vibrates with color and light and joy and every moment is a miracle.
What turns out to be a brain tumor turns Bari into her best, happiest self. Bari bathes in these strange, good feelings and never wants them to end. But she also grapples with who she truly is—someone who believes that life is meaningless like a mopey teenager or someone truly alive for the first time in her life?
Will this aura of awesomeness dissipate when the tumor is removed and Bari returns to her former role, a merchant of doom?
Be Here Now closes February 16, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
Luckily, Laufer’s play doesn’t give us the answers we, or Bari, seek, but she teases us with possibilities as well as toying with the idea of a thin line between genius-creativity and madness. As Daniel Ettinger’s carousel-like set reveals the settings of Bari’s revelations, so does the play show us the value of mining the meaning out of every moment.
The play and the production is also thankfully free of touchy-feely, Oprah-esque maxims about finding your aura, self-care and the zen of happiness.
Be Here Now reminded me of Kay Redfield Jamison’s books about moods, madness and creativity or of insider artists (like those at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum) who created the most rapturous, ecstatic art as oddballs but when treated with psychotic drugs or brain zapped with electricity, their artistic voices were stilled.
Is it worth treating mental illness or a brain condition if it silences your genius?
The play makes you think about those “touched with fire” and how they handle it. Mike, played with beguiling ineptitude by Kyle Prue, retreats from society after a tragedy and devotes his life with monkish simplicity to making art out of what others throw away.
Yet Mike also quivers with the same sensitivity to what is all around him as Bari does when she has a seizure. There is this quietly revelatory scene late in the play, when Bari is slumped on a bench fretting that her golden, syrupy moments of pure happiness are transient. Mike is half-listening, his senses trembling as he sniffs the air.
“Do you smell it?” he asks her in wonder and at first all she detects is cat pee on an abandoned lampshade.
“Spring,” Mike states. And they sit quietly and sniff a new season.
Be Here Now . Written and directed by Deborah Zoe Laufer . Featuring Katy Carkuff, Beth Hylton, Shubhangi Kuchibhotla, Kyle Prue . Set Design: Daniel Ettinger. Lighting Design: Harold F. Burgeee II. Costume Design: David Burdick. Sound Design: Sarah O’Halloran. Fights/Intimacy: Lewis Shaw. Stage Manager: Cat Wallis. Produced by Everyman Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.