At the start of Lyric Stage Company’s production of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s seriocomic “Be Here Now,” an academic named Bari (Samantha Richert) is taking part in a yoga class. To judge by the sour expression on her face, Bari would prefer, all things considered, to be undergoing a root canal.
That look proves not to be yoga-inspired. It’s Bari’s usual, fixed expression. Let others intone “Om”; Bari’s reflex is a muttered “Ugh.” A ray of sunshine she is not. In outlook and occupation, Bari is a nihilist. That’s what forms the bedrock of her philosophy, and it’s the focus of her work as a professor, a job she can’t return to until she finishes her dissertation.
Asked what her dissertation is about, Bari answers: “It’s about how nothing matters.” Not even love? “Whatever you choose, sooner or later it will end in grief.” All righty then!
However, when Bari begins to experience severe headaches, followed by seizures, the world suddenly takes on a cheerier aspect, especially after Mike (Barlow Adamson), who makes art out of garbage, enters the picture. Bari eventually has to make a very big decision. Essentially, she has to decide whether to say yes or no to life, but in her case there’s nothing simple about the definition of “life.”
The problem is that before arriving at that crossroads, “Be Here Now” spins its wheels far too long for a one-act play that runs a bit under 90 minutes.
As demonstrated in her “Out of Sterno” (presented at Gloucester Stage Company in 2015) and “The Last Schwartz” (at Gloucester Stage in 2016), playwright Laufer has a fondness for eccentrics. But in “Be Here Now” she overestimates the charm of three of her four characters.
The scene that follows the yoga session drags, partly because Laufer lets it run on almost to the point of tedium, and partly because neither Richert nor director Courtney O’Connor has quite figured out how to make Bari’s unremitting gloom and misanthropy dramatically compelling.
The upshot is that the rest of “Be Here Now” is a matter of climbing out of that dramaturgical hole. It more or less manages to do so, thanks to a quickening of the play’s central dilemma and a jolt of adrenaline delivered by Adamson as the seemingly laid-back, more-than-meets-the-eye Mike. As usual with this consummate pro, Adamson gives the role exactly what it needs: no more, no less.
Speaking of reliable pros: Scenic designer Janie E. Howland, whose aesthetic discernment has enriched numerous Lyric Stage productions, has created a streamlined, Bauhaus-tinged set consisting of a geometric array of moveable benches and shelving and chairs, some of which seem to be floating in space. Howland’s design artfully suggests Bari’s disengagement from a world she sees largely in abstract terms.
While working on her thesis, Bari is working at a fulfillment center in a small town in upstate New York, wrapping and shipping ceramic objects — ostensibly from the Himalayas, actually made in China. Her coworkers are gruff but kind-hearted Patty (Shani Farrell), who is middle-aged, like Bari, and a big believer in astrology as a guide to compatibility, and Patty’s ingenuous 20-year-old niece, Luanne (Katherine C. Shaver), who’s drawn into sexting with a new boyfriend.
Class tensions lurk around the edges. The nihilism of Bari, who presumably will be back in the comfortable precincts of academia ere long, seems awfully self-indulgent when compared with the uncertainty faced by her blue-collar colleagues, especially when Bari gloomily predicts: “We’re all going to be replaced by robots.” But those tensions are not fruitfully explored.
Things start to pick up when Mike, who only travels by bicycle, and Bari go on a blind date. When Bari tells him that she teaches nihilism, Mike asks: “Isn’t that a teenage thing?”
At first it seems like nothing more than a smart-aleck remark aimed at puncturing Bari’s pretensions. But she will soon learn that Mike has significant intellectual credentials of his own — and a tragic past. Glib posturing when it comes to life and its meaning is something he can’t afford.
BE HERE NOW
Play by Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston. Through Oct. 17. Tickets $25-$75. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com