Friday February 10th, Manchester Opera House
I'm a bit worried about Zach Braff. He was my writing crush for such a long time after Garden State but now I fear he can only write the same story. His first play, All New People, now entering a run in the UK after a successful off-Broadway stint in New York, has so many similarities to Garden State that it's a bit alarming. Not that I should mind of course as it's my favourite film in the world, but it's not exactly inspiring.
Charlie (Braff) goes to stay at a beach house on Long Island, New Jersey in the dead of Winter, intent on killing himself he is so miserable. As he is about to end it all, he is interrupted by the arrival of three loud, nosey and obnoxious characters, who through religion, drugs and sex all try to talk him back into living. We soon find out Charlie isn't the only one with problems, and perhaps he just needs to find a better way of dealing with them.
It all felt very stiff at first - this shrieking infuriating woman, Emma, horrified at finding a man about to kill himself in the house she's supposed to be renting out, and Zach Braff prowling and ranting about the stage, enraged she's stopped him. I'm not sure if it was the character of Emma - I'd need to see it done with another actress - buy mi god did Eve Myles try my patience. Her shrill voice, her delivery, even down to her facial expressions - it all reeked of the stage and I couldn't get past the fact she was acting a part and not suspending my disbelief. I had to check my programme afterwards to check she had actually done theatre work before. She was much better in her back story-TV piece, where she is clearly more at home. Her character isn't subtle, but then again none of them are, yet the other actors made their roles all the more endearing and easier to warm to. Her back story was also the daftest - way too OTT, and jarred me out of the situation. There are a million other taboo ways to make it so she can't go back to the UK - make it less complicated, please.
Kim was much more likable despite being the dumb blonde. Susannah Fielding is a lovely actress (I saw her in Waiting a couple of years ago at the LIFF) and she plays off against everyone here, often making her the heart of the performance, the one your eyes follow around. Her energy and pitch perfect kookiness makes her presence vital for this play, and it feels complete once she is finally introduced. Her comic timing is also a delight: "I was once worked for this phone sex line..." Out of all the characters we probably know the least about her: her quest to be the next big singer is stale, though she does have a lovely song moment towards the end with a ukulele, followed by her girlish squeal of, "it's snowing in the house!" which won me over regardless. And I LOVED that all her life anaologies were based on The Sims.
Myron was probably my favourite character, only because he had the most genuinely funny lines - not from being dumb or over the top, but by just being funny - and he had the most depth as well. He's played as a no good womanising drug dealer who really shouldn't be employed as a fireman, but as we go along we discover he's surprisingly clever and perceptive, and it's telling that he's the one Charlie finally confides in, and he's the one who understands him the most. He sort of collapses in the last stretch - revealing his darkest secret to Charlie and also blabbing Emma's out against her will, after she has brazenly rebuked his love for her. He could almost be seen as vile if Emma wasn't so completely unbearable herself and you don't feel the least bit sorry for her. Paul Hilton is the most experienced of the ensemble on the boards, and it shows by a mile - he is the most comfortable, assured, effortless performer out there, and his character's back story is completely believable.
Finally we get to Charlie, who we first meet standing on a chair with a noose around his neck,(comically) trying to put out his last cigarette without hanging too soon: it is an arresting opening. He's angry at being interrupted mid-suicide (or most probably an inflated sense of relief as he wasn't actually going to go through with it anyway... hence his horror at the chair accidentally being knocked from under his feet and the noose strangling him for about 10 seconds before the chair is put back... you can say one thing about Zach Braff, he does his own stunts) - his frustration and utter disbelief as more and more people start appearing and making themselves at home, whilst at the same time giving him free lecture on the half-baked idea of killing himself. Braff is not at his best here: blustery and farcical, he's almost like a Looney Toons character. But as the play progresses he shines. Charlie tells a number of lies about himself to try and get the 'guests' to leave and to also bolster his meagre appearance, but when the real truth comes out, suddenly he's Andrew Largeman and we're back in familiar territory. His revelation that he has "killed six people" is a sorta truth: in his own backstory VT which he beautifully combines with a monologue, he tells Myron how, left numbed by a break up, he is distracted in his job as an air traffic controller by two ants fighting over a Pop Tart crumb. And in that moment he saw how pointless the fight was, and it made him realise how pointless his own struggle to God must look, so he starts to prey for strength. Eyes closed, concentrating on his own situation, he fails to divert two adjacent planes on the monitor and they collide into one another, killing six people. He was suspended from work for 100 days, but feeling this is not nearly enough to pay for what he did, that's why he has decided to kill himself. It's the best bit of the whole play. By offloading, Charlie begins to gain clarity and perspective, and when the Pop Tart crumb in question - that he has kept all this time in his wallet - is accidentally snorted by cocaine happy Kim who fails to realise its significance - "it's just a crumb!" - Charlie lets go altogether. It's not quite the neatness of the cup of tears in Garden State - it was actually his own fault that those people died, and this fact is strangely dismissed relatively quickly - but it gives the play a much needed injection of pathos, and philosophy. Kim's re-telling of some advice she was given, "in 100 years there will be all new people" is the cherry on top.
Which proves that All New People is certainly worth sticking with (there's no interval, anyway!) as the clumsy and unfunny first half more than improves once we get stuck into the characters, and there's more to think about. The ending is rather perfect, too. The splicing of Video and Theatre won't be to everyone's tastes, but I found this refreshing and somewhat ingenious - if the M.O of Braff and director Peter DuBois is to bring the Internet generation into the theatre then it will most definitely be well received.
As much as I adore Garden State and should be thrilled All New People is basically Garden State 2: The Pop Tart (now the latch of the dishwasher), I hope there's more to come from Braff than this. It can be said all writers are telling exacty the same story and still manage to entertain, and I don't fault that in him: it's a worthwhile night out at the theatre. But he is extraordinarily talented and needs to write something where the protagonist is not numb from guilt only to be reawakened by quirky people for a change. He's perfectly capable of it. Until then - and expect the inevitable film in a couple of years - go and see this for yourself while you can. It's a great coup for these parts that he's even here, and fans will be delighted. Only writing fangirls may feel slightly disappointed.
All New People continues it's UK wide run next week at Glasgow King's Theatre 14-18 February, and then begins its 10 week long run at the Duke of York's Theatre in London's West End from 22nd February.