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If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Gomez, Annie Funke, and Brían F. O'Byrne.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Given how prominently global warming factors into If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet, which Roundabout just opened at its Laura Pels Theatre, it's a bit surprising that Nick Payne's play leaves you as cold as it does. After all, the British family drama at its heart is easily recognizable and capably observed. And the cast, which includes Brían F. O'Byrne and Jake Gyllenhaal, is mostly quite strong. Unfortunately, Payne has trouble avoiding clichés, and director Michael Longhurst amplifies them beyond all reason to create a production that is considerably shallower and less significant than the script it's trying to present.

But there are some solid ideas at work, starting with the pairing of the 15-year-old Anna (Annie Funke) and her paternal uncle, Terry (Gyllenhaal). They haven't seen each other in ages (so long, in fact, that Terry has trouble remembering her name isn't Hannah), ever since Terry vanished in the wake of a failed romance, but now that he's returned their bond is surprisingly strong. They're each misfits, he because of his dangerous obsessive impulsiveness, she because of a serious weight problem and schoolmates who have learned that her mother is a teacher at her new school. Beyond that, Terry understands things about diet and boys that Anna can't, and her cooking skills and guileless geniality are just what he needs to orient himself during a difficult time.

Payne charts their friendship beautifully, guiding it from young and awkward to adult and symbiotic. And that's just what Anna needs. Her father George (O'Byrne), after all, is so devoted his climate awareness work—his current project is a book revealing the carbon footprint of everything on the planet—that he can barely notice Anna, and the girl is positive that her educational-judgmental mom Fiona (Michelle Gomez) will never understand her. Anna craves an adult role model, and once she finds one in Terry, it's naturally not long until her vulnerability and inexperience with affection lead her to suspect that perhaps Terry's intentions for her stretch beyond the avuncular.

As long as the play grapples with this question, and the side issue of whether Fiona's marriage to George is only now disintegrating or completed the process long ago, it satisfies as an exploration of contemporary alienation that we bring upon ourselves and that our families, intentionally or otherwise, encourage. None of this would work without Funke, who projects an inviting youthfulness, inexperience, and optimism as Anna, tempering with a compellingly dark belief that, when she comes out of the tunnel of adolescence, everything will not be okay. Some late-show developments with Anna border on the mawkish, but Funke never lets them become as flatly colorless as they could all too easily seem.

Gyllenhaal is terrific and ideally cast as Terry, playing the young man as an adult male version of Anna who's never been able to completely abandon his own insecurities. Nervous tics abound (he cannot keep his legs still, whether standing or sitting), and the swaggering confidence he displays is always undercut by the apparent belief that nothing about him is good enough to accept as is. It's a detailed, charismatic performance of exactly appropriate theatrical size, something not all movie stars prove capable of when treading the New York boards—his is an extremely impressive debut.

He more than holds his own against the experienced and dynamic Gomez, who makes the most of every second of her relatively little stage time. She crafts Fiona as a tart but compassionate woman about to be torn apart from being pulled in so many different directions, yet the professional grace and poise she maintains throughout convince you that Fiona nonetheless has deep experience weathering emotional storms. That she seems forever on the verge of cracking in spite of this underscores the situation's gravity, which Gomez handsomely underplays throughout.

Too much else impedes all this fine work, however. O'Byrne, a superb performer in a fleshed-out role like the priest in Doubt or Alexander Herzen in The Coast of Utopia, is one-dimensional and flavorless here. He evinces neither actorly authority nor the depth of George's necessary self-absorption. Most of the time, in fact, he seems to look and sound stymied by how he's supposed to make his character resemble a flesh-and-blood person.

I can't say I blame him. For all the care Payne has put into intricately carving out the other characters, he's rendered George as a lumbering bore with no notable feature beyond the contrast of his laser-focused view of saving the world contrasting his complete myopia about his own family. This isn't particularly adventurous plotting, but it can work with an appropriately specific central figure. But because there's nothing else to him, you never believe his journey or accept the impact he has on others; his tendency to blandly and baldly state his intentions, as if his manias weren't obvious enough on their own, only further erode the foundation where it should be at its strongest.

Worse yet, Longhurst grabbed onto George's delusion as his overriding staging theme, and applies enough pressure to it that the entire 95-minute evening eventually cracks in two. It's bad enough that actors throw around furniture during scene changes as though they're making deposits at the junkyard, pointing up the building chaos as if by wrapping it in neon, but Longhurst links George's concern about the Greenland ice sheet melting with his own family dilemmas by literally flooding the entire stage at the show's climax.

As the actors tromp around in the water for the last 15 minutes or so, they become uninvolving environmental avatars gone haywire, exactly backwards from everything shown up to that point, and unable to carry the human weight of the story's final revelations. The potential worth of much of Payne's play, and the trio of accomplished performances, all but drown in the sneering symbolism on display. George is driven practically to the brink by the knowledge that those he observes know of the danger of their behavior, but do nothing to change course. Amid the few remarkable moments at If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet, audiences will understand all too well how he feels.

If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet
Through November 25
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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