It’s oh-so-easy to hate Zach Braff, semiretired “It” kid, Scrubs’ erstwhile Ally McBoy, and now playwright: His first (and, I suspect, last) work for the stage, All New People, opened last night at Second Stage. It’s pretty bad, no way around it. But its badness needs examining; there’s anthropological if not artistic value here.
ANP sits, inevitably, in the shadow of Braff’s most indelible work. His Garden State made a hubristically deliberate bid to be The Graduate for the Exhausted Aughts — and it did, in fact, crystallize the profound self-absorption of mope-is-me Bush-age late-twentysomethings. We briefly, guiltily enjoyed Braff’s ad hoc quirk collage, his breezy use of modern anxiety as fashion accessory, his crypto-jailbait Flowers for Algernon girl-child love interest. We enjoyed these things even as we recognized, on some level, that Garden State was an Uncanny Valley, an emo simulacrum of actual human feeling — a pose. Now we’re cratered recession-era thirtysomethings with infants and anemic stock portfolios, and, looking back, we can’t forgive Braff for getting us mostly right. Rome was burning, and we were a bunch of preening, overmedicated, playlist-mongering nincompoops, begging for indie cred and youth relevance from an advancing army of Real Millennials. I know, I’m starting to look old to you, Li’l Joe Hoodie, but before you dismiss me, please listen to this new band I heard in Bushwick! I really think you’ll want to paste it into your YouFace Wallpage Feedlot! Braff had the brass to venerate his generation without an ounce of critique, and fetishize himself in the process: He’ll always be, first and foremost, the man who had Natalie Portman, playing an epileptic pixie next door, harvesting his hard-won tears in Dixie Cups. No pardon awaits him on the other side of the Cultural Styx.
But is it just de rigueur Garden Hate that makes me loathe All New People? I don’t think so. ANP kept coming up with original reasons for me to despise it; it’s entirely possible, in fact, to forget Braff was involved at all and reject the play on its own terms.
That’s not to say Braffilm and Braffplay have nothing in common. All New People trades in the same kind of drive-thru absurdism that powered Garden State (colorful and druggy local eccentrics, winsome-hot ladies, flimsy digressions on God and fate broken by pratfalls) and centers on another Impossibly Sad Young(ish) Man: Charlie (The Hangover’s Justin Bartha), who’s borrowed a rich friend’s Long Beach Island vacation house in the snowy off-season with the intention of killing himself in peace and quiet. Unfortunately for all of us, he’s interrupted by a parade of tailor-made crazies, each sporting a wacky backstory that’s conveyed (with profound laziness) by short films shown throughout the play. (The action actually freezes, film-style, and projection screens roll in: the magic of theater, ladies and gentlemen!) These supporting characters include Emma (Breaking Bad’s Krysten Ritter), a logorrheic, nitrous-huffing illegal alien from the U.K.; Myron (David Wilson Barnes of The Lieutenant of Inishmore), a drug-dealing fireman who used to teach high-school drama; and, of course, a ditzy blonde call girl (Anna Camp) who sweetly requests that clients “stay away from my asshole” and says just-the-darnedest things: “Your accent sounds so British, like Madonna’s or Gwyneth Paltrow,” she tells Emma, “But you said you’re an illegal alien, right? Aren’t you guys from Mexico?” Rim job! Sorry: Rim shot!
Camp is, by far, the most delightful presence onstage, knocking every middling-good joke out of the park. Her character is too thin to be dragging any of the cheap bathos and moody-broody nonsense everyone else is encumbered with: Charlie, Emma, and even Barnes’s bumptious, hedonistic Myron come bumper-stickered with the kind of tragedies you only find in mainstream television and film — profiles in pain that fit neatly on three-by-five storyboarding cards. Camp’s character is a throwaway, a type, though we quickly come to realize she’s actually no more synthetic than the rest of the ensemble. But when the hooker-malapropist steals the show, there’s a problem with your play. And the problem is, you don’t really have a play. You have an Impossibly Sad Young Man (with an Implausibly Sad Personal History) with whom the other characters are instantly obsessed for no particular reason. This isn’t a story, or even a fully gestated character.
The rest is just Quirk Thunderdome: Most of the people onstage don’t know each other, their relationships have no savor or substance, and their primary mode of communication is argument: All New People is 90 minutes of people contradicting, correcting, and undercutting each other, spitting witty little cobra jets of venom in each others eyes, and then hiding out on the other side of the room until it’s once again their turn to quip or confess. Director Peter Dubois seems to realize he’s wrangling a vacuum (though he doesn’t seem to have realized, in time, that Ritter can’t sustain a convincing English accent), and he keeps things moving, leaping quip to quip as if he were directing a half-hour comedy. (Which, it turns out, he is.) Barnes, an actor to watch, succeeds in fleetingly transforming Myron into a credible townie tragedy — if Braff ever had the beginning of a play in him, he should’ve ripped up everything by Myron and begun again. Ritter essentially disappears for large swaths of the play. “I suck at being human” she explains, in what could serve as a blanket apologia for this whole godforsaken enterprise. Attention, Diablo Cody: Off Broadway awaits your inevitable Juno on a Hot Tin Roof. The bar has been set, and set low.
All New People is playing at Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street.