Where: Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through Oct. 19
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Can a generous spirit compensate for a contrived plot? If characters are caring, does it matter that they’re poorly motivated? How much repetition is acceptable in a 90-minute play before it becomes irritating?
Those are a few of the questions I asked myself while watching the Shattered Globe Theatre’s Chicago premiere of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “Be Here Now” at Theater Wit.
Commissioned by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, the dramedy focuses on a woman who begins asking herself lots of questions, although they’re of a far more existential nature than mine. Her name is Bari (Rebecca Jordan), and she was a professor of nihilism in New York City but has retreated to her childhood home in a fictional little town upstate where she’s been trying unsuccessfully to write her dissertation on the subject for the last nine years.
To make ends meet, she works in a fulfillment center for Tibetan artifacts that are really knickknacks made in China. A dour woman convinced that everything is meaningless, she hates the job, but coworkers she’s known since childhood keep trying to cheer her up. They are Patty Cooper (Deanna Reed-Foster), an astrology-addicted 50-something font of opinions, and her ebullient niece, Luanne Cooper (Demetra Dee), whose cheerfulness may be attributable to mood-enhancing drugs.
Luanne thinks she has healing hands that can help Bari. Patty is convinced that what she needs is a date, so she sets the very reluctant Bari up with her cousin Mike Cooper (Joe Wiens), an eccentric who lives with a crow named Hubble and rides around town on his bicycle collecting “garbage” (discarded strollers, vacuum cleaners, etc.) that he uses to build houses.
Meanwhile, Bari has started having headaches that cause colorful hallucinations and blackouts from which she wakes up seeing the world totally differently—as a beautiful place where everything is connected. She has one shortly after she meets Mike and they argue, deciding that they have nothing in common. But the blackout gives her such a lust for….well, Mike, that she wants to jump into bed with him. He, on the other hand, hasn’t really recovered from a past trauma and just thinks she should have her head examined, literally.
They rest of the evening alternates between Bari questioning who she is and trying to make Mike like her. She wonders over and over if the way she saw things before was real or if her post-blackout perceptions are the truth. Though the attacks seem to be getting more frequent, she’s reluctant to see a doctor to find out what’s wrong, and when she finally does—pushed by the others—she doesn’t know if she wants to have the brain tumor removed. Even though it might kill her, she doesn’t want to lose her new euphoria.
A big “tough love” speech from Patty finally convinces Bari to have the operation, leading to a rather sweet finale. Credit goes to Jordan and especially Wiens for crafting interesting characters whose chemistry develops convincingly under the sure hand of director Sandy Shinner. She also overcomes some of the sitcom quality of the dialogue, so that Reed-Foster’s Patty and Dee’s Luanne aren’t as cartoonish as they might have been. In fact, a couple of scenes are quite funny, among them the opener with the three women at a yoga class; watching Jordan’s growing distress as she’s flanked by the blissful other two is hilarious.
On the other hand, implausibilities in the script and a couple of directorial missteps mar later scenes. Even accepting the idea that Bari might refuse an operation, the extent of the discussion about how to transport her the 100 miles to the New York hospital seems ridiculous. Patty says she’s never driven in New York and doesn’t want to because she might “kill” them, which is profoundly insensitive considering she knows that Mike—whom she’s urging to drive—hasn’t set foot in a car for years because he did kill more than one someone. They probably should have called 911—or Uber.
When Mike—who has gotten a MacArthur “genius grant” for his houses, by the way—visits Bari in the hospital, he passes the time making a little house for Hubble out of hospital supplies. Yet when he leaves, Shinner doesn’t have him take it with him, which is very unlikely give how much he loves the crow. Another little incongruity: Bari has brain surgery but still keeps all her hair.
Angela Weber Miller’s scenic design suggests Mike’s constructions with the help of Vivian Knouse’s props design, but I wish Shelley Strasser’s lighting could have done more to get inside Bari’s head. Hailey Rakowiecki’s costumes suit the characters nicely.
Overall, I enjoyed “Be Here Now,” even with its incongruities, though Bari’s incessant self-questioning made me think the lady did protest too much.