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NEW YORK — While his character is the sober, responsible member of the wolf pack in the Hangover movies, Justin Bartha gets to play a suicidal mess in All New People. But the unforced charm he brings to the central role of a lovelorn depressive is a quality too frequently absent from Zach Braff’s slight debut play.
As screenwriter, director and star of the appealing 2004 indie feature, Garden State, Braff brought a more gentle touch to themes that overlap with those of his play — the urge to numb ourselves to life’s emotional bruises; the desperate, usually inarticulate need to connect.
Having appeared as an actor last summer in Peter DuBois’ production of Trust at Second Stage, Braff returns to the same director and top-tier Off Broadway company with the kind of play they do best. It’s basically a hipper, edgier take on the bantering comedies that were once the domain of playwrights like Neil Simon and his imitators, albeit with darker undertones.
But two of the cast members serve as reminders that better, far more complex examples of that contemporary model have graced this same stage: David Wilson Barnes, seen in Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw, and Anna Camp, who appeared in Theresa Rebeck’s The Scene.
That’s not to say DuBois’ slick production and Braff’s writing are without pleasures or affecting observations. The opening visual alone provides an immediate hook when scrim panels part to reveal Charlie (Bartha), wearing the sad-sack uniform of a shapeless bathrobe, standing on a chair with a noose around his neck and puffing on a final cigarette.
Following a painful breakup and subsequent fatal meltdown at work, Charlie has retreated to a vacation house on Long Beach Island, N.J., owned by his wealthy friend Kevin (Tony Goldwyn, one of three actors who make special appearances in brief filmed interludes). Alexander Dodge’s sharp two-level design conveys the sterile-chic, personality-free style of a decorator-assembled environment, right down to the ridiculous eyesore of an outsize African art piece. That makes it the perfect setting for the quasi-absurdist odyssey of Charlie’s mortis interruptus.
It being mid-winter in a summer colony, he expects to be left alone. No such luck. First to arrive is Emma (Krysten Ritter), a verbally incontinent Brit real estate broker with immigration-status problems, looking to rent out the house. Next comes Myron (Barnes), a drama teacher-turned-fireman and drug-dealer (he prefers “purveyor of distractions”) whose love for Emma is unrequited. Finally, in walks Kim (Camp), a $15,000-a-night hooker sent by Kevin as a care package.
As the hidden traumas, sorrows and dreams of the four characters gradually come to light, Charlie remarks to Myron at one point, “You’ve always got some obnoxious quip just ready to go, huh?” As a playwright, Braff could face similar charges, though his quips are more self-conscious than obnoxious. The situation feels too contrived in its quirks, and the dialogue too carefully honed to yield laughs spontaneously. When the play turns darker, the actors do find poignant notes in their characters, even if Braff’s limits as a writer become more evident.
The troubled back-story of Emma, in particular, is unconvincing, partly due to miscasting. Ritter has been terrific in roles like Jesse Pinkman’s doomed junkie girlfriend on Breaking Bad. But she struggles with the accent here, playing it shrill and sitcommy.
Sketching the circumstances of Emma’s flight from England, Braff again resorts to a pre-shot video to convey information that a more skilled writer would have handled in exposition and foreshadowing. Generally, the filmed inserts are poorly integrated, though it’s amusing to see S. Epatha Merkerson as a high school principal confronting Myron with Facebook evidence of him snorting coke with his students.
While Kim comes saddled with the baggage of too many open-hearted blond dimwits, Camp (True Blood) makes her a sweet cliché. And as the characters probably closest to Braff’s own persona, Bartha and the extremely talented Barnes strike a fine balance between humor and melancholy, with the latter shades satisfyingly amplified as the play progresses.
Ultimately, All New People is agreeable enough as a seriocomedy about how strangers can become friends, and friends can become family, helping to heal the wounds of life’s cruel blows. But fresh insights and real depth are in short supply.
Venue: Second Stage Theatre, New York (runs through Aug. 14)
Cast: David Wilson Barnes, Justin Bartha, Anna Camp, Krysten Ritter, Kevin Conway, Tony Goldwyn, S. Epatha Merkerson
Playwright: Zach Braff
Director: Peter DuBois
Set designer: Alexander Dodge
Costume designer: Bobby Frederick Tilley II
Lighting designer: Japhy Weideman
Sound designer: M. L. Dogg
Projection designer: Aaron Rhyne
Presented by Second Stage Theater
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