When Deborah Zoe Laufer was 8, her family moved to a small town in upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains. She says she was the first Jewish person that her classmates ever met.
“They thought I had horns … I was really tortured,” Laufer recalls.
While many children in that situation would fade into the background, Laufer says she came out swinging.
“As self-defense, I told the other kids, ‘Yes, I do have horns. You should be scared of me,” she says. Eventually, Laufer gained the respect of her peers. “By the time I was in sixth grade, I won the award they gave from [the National Society] Daughters of the American Revolution,” she says.
Laufer’s fearlessness today is evident in her playwriting, where she’s not reticent to confront difficult issues or ask loaded questions. Her tragicomedy “Be Here Now,” running at Everyman Theatre through Feb. 16, is a perfect example.
Originally commissioned and produced by the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, “Be Here Now,” the first in a trilogy, tells the story of Bari, a lifelong melancholic and failed academic, played by Everyman Theatre resident company member Beth Hylton.
Unable to complete her Ph.D. in nihilism — of all things! — at a New York City university, Bari is forced to return to her hometown in the Catskills, where she gets a job at a fulfillment center. Bari hardly knows what hit her when she begins experiencing recurrent headaches and seizures that bring about ecstatic religious experiences.
When discovering the joyful episodes are being caused by a brain tumor, Bari must make a choice between living a short life filled with rapture and meaning, or a long life that promises to be miserable and meaningless.
“She’s at a low at the top of the play,” says Laufer, who also directs Everyman’s production. “Then, she finds a new joy and doesn’t want to lose it.”
Writing about a brain syndrome came naturally to Laufer who grew up playing in the forest and caring for baby animals.
“I should have done something in science,” says the playwright. “A lot of my plays are inspired by science stories. If you want to look at what it means to be human now — which is what I think plays are really about — I think science is the place to look for some fascinating stories. I like moral ambiguity in my plays, and with breakthroughs in science, the ethics are always racing to catch up to the science.”
For instance, Laufer’s play “Informed Consent’ explores the ethical dilemmas presented by human genome research.
“Now, we can know where we came from, what we’ve inherited, and what our future may hold,” she says. “Who gets to know those things? How much do you want to know? You have husbands and wives arguing about what they find out about their children. Who deserves to hold that information close?”
Laufer says many of her plays are also “about where science and religion bump up against each other, and it’s uncomfortable.”
An avowed atheist, she says she is “envious of those who have faith. I think there’s just a genetic component to believing, and I was born without it.”
Still, Laufer admires the questioning nature inherent in her own religion. “In Judaism, we ask and ask and ask.”
That’s what Laufer wants audiences to do when they see her plays.
Before she became a playwright, Laufer was an actress. Though there wasn’t much theater in the Catskills, her parents, Bobbie and Sid Laufer, regularly took the family to see theater in New York City, and Laufer says she knew she wanted to be on the stage.
After high school, Laufer attended the acting conservatory at the State University of New York, at Purchase in Westchester County, N.Y. Upon graduation, she moved to New York City to pursue acting and stand-up comedy.
She met her husband, David Friedlander, a fellow actor, at an audition. “We did 14 plays together before we got married. Then, he panicked and went to law school,” says Laufer.
When she became pregnant with the first of her two sons, Laufer panicked, too. “I became terrified that I would never go out again.”
Figuring that it was something she could do at home, Laufer decided to try her hand at playwriting. As it turned out, “being pregnant made me see the world anew, and it was a great time to write,” she says.
To her surprise, the first play she wrote was produced right away. “I was hooked,” she says.
After giving birth, Laufer, her husband and their newborn son moved to Los Angeles, where Laufer says she thought she could find opportunities in the television industry. Meanwhile, a friend in Missoula, Mont., encouraged her to enter her play in a playwriting conference.
“So I sent it and I got in,” says Laufer. At the playwriting conference, Laufer met Marsha Norman, a Pulitzer prize-winning playwright and novelist.”
“Within a few days, she said to me, ‘You know you’re a playwright, right?’ I said, ‘No, I didn’t know that.’ She invited me to come to Julliard. It was just kismet. Going to Julliard changed my life.”
Laufer has been a prolific playwright ever since. The author of more than a dozen plays including “Informed Consent,” “Leveling Up,” “The Last Schwartz,” “The Three Sisters of Weehawken” and “Sirens,” her work has been produced in regional theaters across the country and internationally. A resident of Mount Kisco, N.Y., she has won various playwriting awards, grants and commissions.
Despite existential crises and fatal brain tumors, Laufer says “Be Here Now” is a “hopeful” play. “I don’t like plays about how awful humanity is,” she says. “You can turn on the TV and hear about that. I want people to see the play and to search and talk to their loved ones.”
Everyman Theatre is at 315 W. Fayette St. For information and tickets to “Be Here Now,” visit everymantheatre.org.
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