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All New People

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Justin Bartha with Anna Camp and Krysten Ritter.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

One of the worst parts of a day where everything goes wrong can be the one time something actually goes right: Being reminded of how good it feels for something to work, when everything else around you is falling apart, sets up brutal false expectations. But it also can be a reminder that there is always at least some reason for hope. In his new play All New People, which just opened at Second Stage, Zach Braff explores this despondency and salvation, and comes to the conclusion that each is crucial. Is this a groundbreaking revelation? No, but when it's this marvelously crafted, who cares?

Braff may be best known for his long-running turn as Dr. J.D. Dorian in the NBC sitcom Scrubs, but as a chronicler of the ways we let tragedies shape our lives he's even more astute. His finest work to date came by way of the 2004 film Garden State, which he wrote, directed, and starred in; that bittersweet tale of guilt and homecoming struck an almost perfect balance of serious and silly that few contemporary auteurs have proven able to match. All New People follows a similar template, but pushes the funny even harder. You may think that would invite disaster, but in the end all its amusement makes its somber undertones even more affecting.

At first, however, it seems that's all you're in for. The first thing we see on Alexander Dodge's modern-sophisticated resort-house set is a man (Justin Bartha), standing on a chair, a knotted orange extension cord around his neck. Wearing a natty bathrobe and looking like he hasn't shaved in a month, he seems to be enjoying a cigarette (his last?), but the ashtray is just out of his reach. His figuring out how to douse its flames before dousing himself is the play's first joke, and one of its most unexpected. He has nothing more to think about at this point?

Regardless, such thoughts don't flood his head for long. As the man, named Charlie, steps to his doom, the door opens an in barges a woman who saves him from his dangling. Emma (Krysten Ritter), as it turns out, is the house's rental agent, visiting in the winter to set up clients for the summer to follow. She tries to kick out Charlie, but he insists he has a right to be there. Who's lying? Justin, after all, has reasons to obfuscate, and the British Emma admits to being in the country illegally, so figuring out which to believe is not easy.

Justin Bartha and David Wilson Barnes.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Things don't get much easier when Emma's friend, Myron (David Wilson Barnes), arrives. He's the resort's fire chief, and part-time cocaine dealer, and is also in love with Emma. To her, though, he's just a friend. Then, a fourth person arrives: Kim (Anna Camp), a knockout (and barely dressed) woman who claims she's been sent by Charlie's friend, the real owner of the house, to do whatever is necessary to cheer up Charlie. The only thing he wants, though, is to finish the task Emma interrupted. And what are the chances that will happen?

Slim to none, unsurprisingly, and that's just fine. As the action unfolds, it turns out that all four of these people aren't merely needy. Each one has suffered from a major setback that has sent his or her life spinning in a catastrophic direction. Braff investigates these flash points, with a strong focus on what these people are capable of making right for themselves and for each other. Before long, he reveals them all to be more resilient and in control than they first believed, as well as more capable of helping out Charlie than even he wants.

This is not anti-climactic, because of the journey each visitor must make. Braff explores this in a number of different ways—pratfall comedy, secret-spilling games, drug-fueled reveries—that allow him to reveal the truths no one wants to admit, but that explain everything about who they are and why they make the choices they do. Showstopping jokes in the first half give way so gradually to teeming darkness later on that you don't notice the nature of the play changing. You're seeing these characters grow into themselves and their new makeshift family unit, and these transformations, as well as their aftermaths, prove both powerful and cathartic.

With delicate but devilish staging by Peter DuBois, Braff's writing finds a strongly pitched pacing and complete honesty, even at the moments the pervasive wackiness threatens to take over completely. Much credit is also due the four actors, all of whom are superb in their roles, and have fashioned unique and vivid portraits of people in crisis. The slow smolder of Ritter and Barnes mete out as mismatched almost-lovers contrasts wonderfully with Camp's portrayal of a wise but bubbling sexpot; and Bartha finds an endearing magic in Charlie's all-consuming depression, lighting up the stage with both his sorrow and joy in a way he didn't with his Broadway debut two seasons ago in Lend Me a Tenor.

If the play has a flaw, it's the filmed interludes that depict each character's downward-turning point. These are expertly produced and rendered (the projection designer is Aaron Rhyne), and feature the talents of excellent actors like Tony Goldwyn and S. Epatha Merkerson. But, with the exception of Charlie's, they introduce no new information that isn't communicated elsewhere, and interrupt the flow of Braff's writing, which otherwise crackles from first scene to last.

That final scene, by the way, is particularly touching, an acknowledgement of the soul and serenity we can find, in other people and ourselves, even when we're not looking for it. The overall message of the play may match Kim's contention that in another century no one will remember us or our minuscule problems. But Braff seems to be more vociferously arguing that the grander importance of existence is the support system we create with the help of friends and family, whether we expect them or not: Beauty and purpose can be found anywhere. There's certainly plenty of both to be found in All New People.

All New People
Through August 14
Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage

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