Saturday, August 27, 2011

All New People,com_plays/task,viewPlay/id,147

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

All New People is a new play by Scrubs star Zach Braff, who also wrote and directed the indie-darling movie Garden State. I'm not sure if he picked the songs, but both the movie and the play do have killer music, which might be the best that can be said of them. This odd black comedy starts out with the fantastic Justin Bartha standing on a chair, with his head in an electrical-cord noose, smoking a cigarette--and finding it difficult to reach the ashtray.

That scene is excellent, but it's probably the best in the play, and it has only one character and no dialogue. Can you see where I'm going with this? Well, anyway, he's then interrupted by Krysten Ritter as a flighty British (*cough*) expat who is there to show the off-season beach house to a potential renter. Hijinx are then heavily contrived to ensue. I will be extremely vague about the plot here because it's clear that the play relies heavily on the surprises it can keep.

Let me start at the end, when Anna Camp, as an escort and aspiring music star, breaks out a ukelele and sounds very lovely singing along. (Braff really does use music well.) Camp was great as the cult leader's wife on True Blood a while back, but the writing for her part here--and therefore her performance of it--aims for Brittany on Glee and never quite gets there. Ritter's slightly less dense character is a bit better written but still not believable, and her accent is embarrassingly, distractingly bad. (It was a bit better in the filmed flashback, but the difference between the two was another distraction.) And I did not in any way believe her character's backstory. In fact, I find the play's flippancy toward the topic is fairly offensive.

The guys in this show, however, are excellent and really elevate the mediocre material. Although the plot just doesn't hold, every interaction between Justin Bartha and David Wilson Barnes is absolutely riveting, and they ground the goofy characters so well that it's like they're in an entirely different (good) play than when the women are involved. It's likely that the male characters are just better written. But, also, their wordless moments are the best of the play, and to me that's the mark of excellent acting.

Right, so ... the play. It's ... hmm ... funny at times. But the sight gags are predictable. On the other hand many of the jokes come out of nowhere and seem shoehorned in. Plus the airhead-escort bit gets old really, really quickly, especially when the other female character is also a ditz. And it's unconvincing that all of the characters end up in the same place together to begin with, much less remain there together given the circumstances. When the central premise bringing the characters together is shaky, it's hard to be invested in the action.

The fire chief/drug dealer, played by Barnes, is clearly there to be entertained, so I actually believed his character would hang around. He is playing probably the most chaotic, unpredictable character, and (stupid backstory aside) that makes his staying there the most believable in many ways. (I refuse to believe if an escort is told she can keep the money and NOT work that she'd stay, even if the client were Justin Bartha.) And Barnes's performance is certainly the highlight of the show--even better when he and the wonderfully beleaguered Bartha interact. I hope to see them both in a million other productions.

The ending is bland. I don't know. It just all feels a bit pointless and much of the dialogue seems trite. I love black comedy, with the darkness and humor being good counterpoints, but that's a precarious balance. And I love silly slapstick, but then it needs to give up on any pretense of depth. Plus, I hate when shows include their title in the dialogue. ("So you're all astronauts on some sort of ... star trek?")

This review ended up being much more negative than I expected when I started writing it. I suppose Peter DuBois must have directed the hell out of this script to make it so enjoyable at the time, as it all seems to fall apart on further reflection. I had a good enough time while I was watching it--thanks mostly to the absolutely perfect Bartha and Barnes and, to be fair, some truly hilarious lines. But it's only two weeks later and already the show is mostly gone from my memory, and what I can remember makes me angry.

I ran into someone there who had seen All New People multiple times. I seriously have no idea why.

But have I mentioned how wonderful Bartha and Barnes are? ;)

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