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NEW YORK – Jake Gyllenhaal had a London stage success in 2002 with Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, but until now the actor has never done theater in New York. It’s a pleasure to see him apply his mellow charisma to a minor-key ensemble role rather than marching into town full of star swagger. But Gyllenhaal’s choice of British playwright Nick Payne’s unremarkable If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet to make his Off Broadway debut is perplexing.
To be fair, the play seems more interesting on the page than onstage, and it arrives with an estimable London cachet, having premiered in a different production at the Bush Theatre in 2009 to strong critical response. But as presented here, its picture of a dysfunctional family blind to one another’s problems and unable to communicate feels like the stale fodder of countless young dramatists’ work, not to mention the familiar ground of too many funny-sad indie movies.
More than thematic fatigue, however, the trouble with Michael Longhurst’s production for Roundabout Theatre Company is that it’s been directed to death. The fussy scene transitions and the high-concept coup de théâtre that marks the emotional climax keep us at a cool arm’s length from the characters, who rarely seem to connect – even beyond the non-connection required of them in the text.
The central figure is 15-year-old Anna (Annie Funke), a friendless, overweight problem teen whose mother, Fiona (Michelle Gomez), recently transferred her to the school where she teaches in a bid to protect her from bullying. Anna’s dad, George (Brian F. O’Byrne), is a stuttering academic obsessive, so immersed in his book project about carbon-footprint peril that he fails to hear his daughter’s cries for help or detect the frustration and loneliness of his wife.
Payne sets up Anna’s painful, angry isolation and the microcosmic chaos of her family as a metaphor for global warming, or vice versa, or both. But George’s cumbersome monologues about the state of the planet and our responsibility to save it do little to draw us closer to either eco or emotional crisis. O’Byrne (Doubt, The Coast of Utopia) is a tremendously gifted stage actor but a poor fit for the role. Despite George’s growing awareness of his helplessness as a parent and husband because he’s too deeply in the service of a cause, he’s neither funny nor moving.
The play flickers to life when Gyllenhaal comes on as George’s drifter brother, Terry. Blunt and unfiltered, the affable roughneck breaks through Anna’s defense barrier by sheer clumsy persistence, his gutter-mouthed pep talks initially making her cringe but soon giving her a cautious sense of self-worth. Fortified by a beer and a joint, Uncle Terry points out the unwitting neglect of both parents toward their daughter, but he gets nervous when Anna’s affection for him is muddied by sexual attraction. Ultimately, Terry is too caught up in the lingering wounds of a broken romance to notice Anna spiraling into out-of-control depression.
Funke’s emotional nakedness and Gyllenhaal’s warmth and immediacy make their scenes together the production’s best. But none of the four actors onstage is consistently able to mine the wry humor beneath the domestic discomfort.
Terry is the kind of unapologetic screwup role that actors love, allowing for a lot of shuffling physicality as well as the accent, attitude and profanity-laced dialogue of an eternal lad. Gyllenhaal spends most of his stage time shifting back and forth on his feet, twitching nervously or raking his hair, his arms in near constant motion. The performance is still a little too studied, suggesting that the actor needs to relax into it. But there’s a sense of damaged vulnerability there that gives him a natural allegiance with Anna. However, when Terry exits, the play fizzles.
George has a resonant monologue at the end, questioning whether the human race really deserves to be saved, which brings a little more complexity and coherence to Payne’s unfocused themes. But the playwright and director get far too literal as they toss around jokey Titanic references (“My Heart Will Go On” is heard in a number of variations) to suggest people adrift and drowning.
That idea is pushed even further in Beowulf Boritt’s set, a clever concept that works better in theory than as an illuminating window into the play. During the pre-show scene-setting, a wall of water gushes down to fill a deep glass trough at the front of the stage, while Anna wanders morosely around a jumbled pile of furniture. Cast members retrieve individual pieces as needed and then discard them in the water at the end of each scene, steadily removing the tangle and clearing the space as the characters’ needs are exposed.
But Longhurst overplays the device by flooding the stage at the story’s emotional tipping point. It’s hard to invest in the pathos of these characters when you’re worried about them catching cold as they slosh around in ankle-deep water. Or whether that television is still plugged in, threatening electrocution. Or how long it’s going to take the poor stage crew to clean up this mess.
Venue: Laura Pels Theatre, New York (runs through Nov. 25)
Cast: Annie Funke, Michelle Gomez, Jake Gyllenhaal, Brian F. O’Byrne
Director: Michael Longhurst
Playwright: Nick Payne
Set designer: Beowulf Boritt
Costume designer: Susan Hilferty
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Music and sound designer: Obadiah Eaves
Presented by Roundabout Theatre Company
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