Playing at Theatre
This weekend, I went to the Manchester Opera House for the first time, keen to see its last performance of Zach Braff’s debut play All New People, which has been getting some very good reviews (and a few not so good). Braff is of course best known as awkward but loveable JD from the recently-departed US TV comedy Scrubs, however being a super-fan of “The Braffster” wasn’t a requirement for entry! It was a good event to go along to with my Mum (who was visiting this weekend) and I was interested in how and if Braff would make something theatrical from the same sort of semi-serious musings that we saw in Garden State, his first (and only) feature film as writer/director.
I’ve never really studied theatre so I certainly can’t claim to be an advocate of any particular approach or tradition! But I’ve read and seen enough plays to at least know the kind of experience that I expect from theatre as opposed to other artforms. All New People didn’t really fit with those expectations – and not because it was radical. The set was beautifully composed and the dialogue witty, but its characters and plot never took on more weight than you’d find in an entertaining adult sitcom. Okay, there were references thrown in to the fury of an Old Testament God; to rape, depression, and The Merchant of Venice – but these moments got scattered and lost. The rag-tag trio of kooks who assemble around Braff’s own character Charlie, offer him (and in turn us) little to engage with at first beyond their repartee or sex appeal. He is a suicidal former air traffic controller toying with the idea of hanging himself in a wintry beach house and, interrupted by the property’s letting agent, has a drink and drug-fuelled pity party/analysis session thrust upon him instead. Not exactly what he expected! Charlie and the other characters are of course meant to be post-modern, fractured, hiding under or behind facile personas. The trouble is that neither those personas nor the sketchy revelations about what lies beneath them are particularly significant or intriguing. Maybe that’s the point too in a way?
All New People’s televisuality is heightened by the fact that whenever Braff and director Peter DuBois want to reveal something “deeper” and more truthful about the reality of characters who are otherwise evasive, elusive, or just 2-dimensional, extra-large television screens drop down in front of the curtain to show us “flashbacks” while the actors “freeze frame” behind them. Rather than constituting a brave multimedia theatre experiment, these incongruous inserts revealed where Braff learned his approach to writing and characterisation; and where they really do fit best. For me, a lot of the energy generated by the cast’s dynamic was dissolved by those screens. When you’re sitting too far back or high up to see the actors’ faces on stage in any detail, it’s hard to recognise at first that it’s actually them! A minor point but this does add to the sense of sudden disengagement.
Impressive performances were definitely a highlight of the evening; whoever put together the Manchester cast did a really good job – working well as a four-piece, each one had perfect timing. I particularly liked the light comedic touch of Susannah Fielding, whose ditzy call-girl Kim combined elements of Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar in Some Like It Hot (complete with ukulele), Kaley Cuoco’s Penny in The Big Bang Theory, and Kim Cattrall’s Samatha from Sex and the City. Quite impressive considering how out-of-date and clichéd her character actually was in most regards! As for the others: Eve Myles’s Emma could have slipped unnoticed into the cast of Absolutely Fabulous, becoming a sort of wilder sister to Saffy; and Paul Hilton’s Myron would most definitely be somebody or other in 2 and a Half Men. Well, these are rough guides…and my knowledge of TV comedy characters is just about exhausted. So I have to say that Charlie…well…he is basically Zach Braff, who else? The writer watches on in amusement as he dabbles with the role of someone who may or may not be genuinely suicidal. There were definitely shades of Garden State here – but with less resonance.
Overall, All New People was enjoyable to watch and quite good fun – it just wasn’t as good as I’d hoped for. Even as a piece of television it was quite conventional and predictable when you consider what’s been achieved by a series like the always spellbinding Mad Men! Well, maybe Zach Braff was in Scrubs for too long? It’ll be interesting to see what his next play does, and if he gets a little bolder; more confident with the nature of theatre. I can only hope this review won’t get me any angry letters from Bill Lawrence! 😀