I recently wrote a piece called Why I Won’t Be Watching “My Boyfriend’s Meds” that critiqued the representation of disabled people in a trailer for an upcoming film. Shortly after it posted, I went to see Be Here Now at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore. I wasn‘t planning on reviewing the play; I’d interviewed the playwright for another publication beforehand and usually it’s a one-or-the-other sort of thing, preview or review. However seeing the way mental health and disability were so beautifully handled, particularly right after the trainwreck of that movie trailer, was refreshing. It does everything right that the trailer had done wrong.
The main character in Playwright/Director Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Be Here Now is Bari. Bari’s a drag. She hates her meaningless job and her meaningless town and she’s stuck there unless she can overcome her writer’s block. If she could just finish her dissertation, she could go back to NYC and the (well, meaningless) job of teaching Nihilism to undergrads. Bari starts having recurring headaches that endanger her health, but which also result in ecstatic, almost religious, experiences. She has Geshwind’s Syndrome, a medical condition which can cause myriad behavioral changes including hypercharged libido, impulse control issues, hypergraphia (writing notebooks and notebooks and notebooks of words), seeing auras and visions, and experiencing intense joy. Basically, Bari starts acting differently.
Similar behaviors are engaged in by the central character in the film trailer for My Boyfriend’s Meds. In his case, he is suddenly without his prescription medication for several conditions like Tourette’s Syndrome and bipolar disorder. His symptoms, plus his discontinuation syndrome, are the premise of the comedy. He’s manic, having tics and impulse control issues, balance and sensory issues, verbal outbursts, and anxiety. Basically, Boyfriend starts acting differently.
So, what makes me pen an angry response about the one and a love letter to the other? They have similarities, primarily that someone is acting drastically out of character. Both use humor. Surprising an audience with the unexpected is one of the foundations of comedy. Just on its own outlandish behavior is funny. The fact that the behavior is caused by a medical situation doesn’t automatically make it not funny. I have a disability and sometimes you just have to laugh at the ridiculousness of things. I laugh a lot.
To me, the main difference between these stories is that Bari is a person. Boyfriend doesn’t seem so much a person as a plot device. The trailer’s not about him. It’s not even about his meds. It’s all about the able-bodied people around him and their reactions to his unacknowledged medical crisis. It’s the same kind of tired trope as “fridging” – having a female character in a story just so she can be killed / abused / raped / kidnapped in order to prompt the male protagonist into action.
As a full-fledged person, Bari exists for the story beyond being a vehicle for hijinx and physical comedy. Her altered, crystal-gazing, carpe-dieming personality – particularly juxtaposed against her “normal” grumpy Nihilist self – is still funny as hell. But Be Here Now and its characters don’t mock Bari for her condition. When the people around her, including a man who had literally just met her, see her start to behave erratically, they recognize that something is amiss and she likely requires imminent medical attention. It’s a realistic response to seeing another human in distress.
Because Laufer wrote Bari as a three dimensional person instead of a mere plot device, we get to see not only the responses of others to the comical situations her illness creates, but also Bari’s own reactions. Some are hilarious, but some bring up larger questions about joy and the sources and costs of happiness. By writing Bari, an at least temporarily disabled person, with dignity and a reason for existing beyond her disability’s impact on those around her, Laufer made Bari a more interesting and relatable character. More than that, she made Be Here Now the kind of play you’ll be thinking about long after you see it.
Everyman’s production is particularly memorable because of its exceptional performances. Bari is a tough role; even with solid writing, it’s a big task to transform from Miss Anthropy to Princess Moonbeam and back in 90 minutes and not come off like a caricature. Beth Hylton is mesmerizing, shining brightest not in the easier, comedic zones of Bari’s extremes, but in those vulnerable places in between where she is trying to come to terms with her situation.
Mike Cooper is another richly-written, but challenging, character. Brimming with both pathos and promise, he has a special ability to look at things no longer suitable for their initial purpose and envision new meaning for them. Kyle Prue inhabits this role beautifully. Prue is so natural and present on stage, he heightens the believability of the whole production.
One of the reasons I initially opted to do an interview is that reviewing Everyman shows makes me feel like a fangirl. It can feel redundant, such reliable excellence. How many times can I laud David Burdick’s costume design or Harold F. Burgess’s lighting before people think I simply like everything? (What can I say? The creative team is really good.) That said, Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger really did outdo himself with the set this time. The stage rotates and the whole thing is surrounded by this cool, maximalist found-art-meets-fulfillment-warehouse frame that works on multiples levels.
Thanks to Deborah Zoe Laufer for writing (and then directing) a character whose disability – even though central to the plot – does not define her, and for populating her life with people who treat her like a person. And congratulations to Everyman on another great story well told.
If you’re near Baltimore, Be Here Now plays at Everyman Theatre, 315 West Fayette Street, through February 16, 2020. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online. Running time is approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission. Everyman Theatre is ADA-compliant, accessible, and offers numerous accommodations to help disabled patrons better enjoy live theater. Parking is available across the street at the Atrium Garage; $11.00 fee.