Boardgames, Burgers and Mortality with Deborah Zoe Laufer
Now that we can trace our genome, we’re finally able to read the greatest story ever told—the history of our species, written in our cells. And what is it telling us? That we’re all cousins! There is a single mutation in the genes of every one of us that we can trace back to one woman in Africa, only a hundred fifty thousand years ago.
We call her
She was our great great great great great…
And on and on and on…
…great great grandmother. Yours and mine.
Everyone in this room, everyone on this planet—we all share that one single mutation. From that one woman. In Africa. So…
We’re all cousins!
We’re all Africans!
We’re all Africans.
All humans are 99.9% the same genetically. One base pair out of three thousand between you and the guy next to you. We have so much more in common than we have differences. Really.
—From Informed Consent (2015)
Deborah Zoe Laufer (which is what my friend Deb is called in playbills) is a completely present person, a self-professed science geek with a small army of beautiful frogs, each of whom she loves as much as any friend. She has a husband and two kids, and they are that rare nuclear family that can be enjoyed as individuals or all at once. She laughs constantly, but not easily, and could best be described as an awestruck atheist. She’s quick to identify a miracle on any level from cosmic to cellular (and larger and smaller), and she wants to make sure you see it too.
Her awards and grants are numerous, her education is impressive, and her plays are produced across the country and around the world, but I had no idea when I met her. We met as writers, but we quickly turned into frozen yogurt connoisseurs and game night buddies.
Her noteworthy work includes End Days, an exploration of one family’s post-9/11 PTSD; Leveling Up, the story of a group of teenage gamers good enough to fly military drones; and (my favorite) Out of Sterno, a manifesto for a woman trapped by how others define her.
Her newest play, Informed Consent, brought me to laughter and tears from its earliest readings as a diverse group of five storytellers took me through the life of Dr. Jillian Elliott, a genetic anthropologist. She is on a journey to improve lives through deeply compassionate research in the time she has, aware of her own genetic markers for early-onset Alzheimer’s, an inherited “genetic glitch” that threatens her own life and, potentially, her daughter’s.
As Deborah prepared to go into rehearsals for the New York premiere, we sat down at her parents’ favorite Thai restaurant in Midtown to have this conversation.
Robby Sandler (Rail): So, let’s talk about your work. [We both laugh.] Is this hilarious?
Deborah Zoe Laufer: This is ridiculous, but it’s weirder when it’s a stranger.
Rail: Have you ever written a play that didn’t take place now?
Laufer: Well, for End Days, I went back from 2007 to 2003.
Rail: Recently enough that their damage isn’t too weird?
Laufer: What’s interesting is that plays I wrote to take place now, like Fortune, are already dated. Now you have to put a date on Fortune. Or The Last Schwartz—they did it recently, and instead of pulling out an agenda she pulls out her iPhone. They’ll all be period pieces eventually.
Rail: Because your newest play, Informed Consent, is so deeply now, I can imagine someone saying it’s a period piece in five years.
Laufer: I try to ask questions that aren’t directly about technology. The big question is identity. If we can know so much about our genome, our past and present, who are we? Are we our tribal histories? Our memories, how far back do we go? Looking back at Leveling Up, drones are now so advanced that people fly them in their backyard. But [Leveling Up] isn’t about the tech so much as it’s about growing up, friendship, trying to learn what’s real. Hopefully, those large questions will be timeless. I don’t even really care, I’m writing because I have questions now.
Rail: Are there questions you continue to ask as a playwright? I almost don’t want to ask this because I find your plays very diverse.
Laufer: Well, I’m obsessed with mortality. Why are we here and what does it mean?
Rail: Does that obsession with mortality carry through to anything other than your playwriting or do you try to keep it there?
Laufer: Oh, no, it’s my whole life. It was in discussions I had with my youngest when he was three, which may not be healthy! Charlie and I have had discussions about death from the time he could talk.
Rail: What do you ask a three-year-old about mortality? Did you just look him in the eye and say, “You’ll be dead someday, what do you think of that?”
Laufer: Well, he’s always been a deep thinker, and he’s always asking about how the world works—like in a real way, not just “why is the sky blue”—and it just made sense. I didn’t raise my kids with religion, and I think mortality is what religion takes care of. Religion takes care of what happens when you die and what happens when, you know, someone you love dies; it takes care of it in such a lovely way, and I’m jealous of that kind of belief. But without it, you have to supply something else. What I have to offer my kids is that the time we are here is meaningful. It’s what you do with the time you’re here.
Rail: And if all of your plays take place now, essentially, is it safe to say that theater is your religion?
Laufer: Oh, absolutely. Theater is the place I go to figure out the meaning of life.
Rail: So in the face of death, you might read the third act of Our Town?
Laufer: Yes. That was beautifully put. I see the third act of Our Town and it’s a religious experience for me, and it puts everything together. I feel moved and transcendent—absolutely, that’s perfect. What more is there to say than “life is so gorgeous, I had better appreciate every moment of it, and it really is happening right now.”
Rail: And what you’re putting out as a playwright is right now. You’re asking about the parts of life that are so beautiful.
Laufer: Yes! In my play End Days, they’re all looking for saviors, and what the family finds out is that they are each other’s saviors, they are what makes life beautiful. When they come together in the end to play a game and eat food together, that is, as you know, as holy an experience as you can have. Like, in the end, if the rapture is coming, what they have is each other. And in my newest, Informed Consent, in the beginning of the play she points to her genome and says, “This is me, and this is my mother,” and she thinks that she is the sum of those letters. And by the end of the play, when she writes to her daughter, she says that we are so much more than that. You decide who you are. You write your own story, so it’s all about agency in your life and realizing what you have around you is what counts. It’s the people you live with. And it always comes down to playing games and eating food.
Rail: Which is basically my entire experience with you and your family!
Laufer: I know! I know! And in almost all of my plays, people are playing games or eating food and that’s where they find comfort with each other. Even in Leveling Up, in the end, it looks really dire for Ian and like he’s sort of lost everything; and they tell him to come out for a hamburger, and you feel hope. There’s great hope because people are going to eat and play games together, and that’s what all of my plays have in common. No matter what happens, we have to find a way to grab a bite after.
From End Days (2007):
I feel like I’m waking up. All these years. I know I kind of checked out. You needed me and … I wasn’t there. For a long time. I know. It’s crazy, but I forgot why I was here. Even before the attacks, even before that. I’d forgotten. What I really cared about. But I remember now.
I don’t have faith like you have, Sylvia. I’m concrete. You know that. I like proof. I like facts. Even when I used to go to temple, it was never about faith or God. It was about my father, my grandfather. There was only one time in my life I had real faith. It was when I fell in love with you. When we got married—we didn’t even know each other that well—but I knew. I knew that whatever happened I could take it. We could take it. If we were together. That I wanted to face whatever happened with you.
I know I let you down Sylvia. Please forgive me. Please take me back.
I’m going to lose you again.
But could we be together now? Whatever time I have left with you? Even if it’s only a few more hours. Could we just give up on me for eternity —I’m a lost cause for eternity. But could I be with you now?
(She looks at him. A rush of memories come back. She goes to him. He wraps his arms around her.)
Thank you. This could last me. I love you honey.
Should we get moving on those Reubens?
Informed Consent, by Deborah Zoe Laufer, directed by Liesl Tommy, premiers in August at Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street in NYC. For further information and tickets, visit: www.primarystages.org