Baristaville’s Zach Braff, star of Scrubs and writer/director/star of the 2004 film Garden State, opened his first play, All New People, at the Second Stage Theatre yesterday, July 25th. We caught up with Braff last week, as he approached opening day, to chat about New Jersey and his new play.
First, as a native of Millburn, I thanked the native of South Orange for flying the flag for our fair state.
Baristanet: I remember when I saw Garden State, I thought wow, that really is like South Orange, it’s all green and beautiful, and it’s not a “what exit” kind of thing. Do you ever make it back?
Braff: I go back and forth a lot. My parents are still there. I love Jersey.
The play takes place in Loveladies, in Long Beach Island. I have very fond memories of going to the beach there. You can’t even tell someone, ‘I’m going down to the Jersey shore’ because they can’t help themselves but make a joke about the Jersey Shore, TV show. So I’ve stopped saying that, and just say ‘I’m going down to Long beach Island.’ People say, oh that sounds nice.
Making fun of Jersey is easy. It’s like getting in an elevator with a stranger and asking about the weather. People just go to it. And that was before Jersey Shore and Jerseylicious and all this stuff. It’s frustrating. I think what I’m doing is hopefully talking about Jersey in a good way. Not that my characters are necessarily mentally healthy people, but they aren’t caricatures of people.
Baristanet: Why did you want to write a play? Obviously it’s not for the money.
Braff: Going to see my father in Community Theatre, he was always in the Baird Community Theatre in South Orange and the Livingston Community Players, I got so much pleasure as a young kid out of going to those shows. It really was the impetus for me in getting involved in entertainment. I continued to see theatre growing up, in college, at Northwestern, even though I was a film major. I had a wonderful acting teacher. When this wonderful roller coaster ride of Scrubs finally ended, I knew I wanted to be involved with theatre in some capacity again.
When I did a play at this theatre last year, I had such a good time there, I decided to try and tackle a play myself.
Baristanet: What was it like working with director Peter DuBois? In Garden State, you were the director.
Braff: We established such a rapport, and I really enjoy him, and it’s easy. When you’re figuring out a play together you want to be with someone where there’s no wrong answer. Peter and I have a wonderful dialogue and very similar taste. I wanted someone else I could trust to tell me when something needed to be better. In Scrubs, I often directed myself, and in Garden State I directed myself. This is the first time where I had to work not only through a director, but also am not playing the lead. So there were new experiences for me there, articulating my thoughts through the director and then to the actors.
Baristanet: Are you nervous about the opening?
Braff: No. It’s playing very well in previews, we see that. It’s a comedy, you know whether it’s working or not from the response in the audience. The feedback we’re getting from all sides seems to be positive. It’s officially reached a point where it’s out of my hands. When you’re an actor you’re nervous because you want to stick all the landings and make it just right, but for me, it’s out of my control so I’m going to sit back and enjoy it.
As for the play itself, you know you’re in for a good ride the moment All New People begins: the curtain walls pull back to reveal a beautiful beach house on a snowy day, and a man in a bathrobe standing on a chair with his head in a noose, smoking a cigarette. He wants to put the cigarette out but the ashtray is out of reach. It’s a smart, telling moment of visual comedy– you know you can laugh, you know something big is at stake. Meanwhile, Irish-Scottish pipe music plays on an unseen stereo. When the doorbell rings, the man is so startled, he slips off the chair and nearly strangles until the uenxpected visitor rescues him. “Why are you trying to kill yourself in one of my summer rentals?” shrieks the dark-haired, British beauty who appears (a winning Krysten Ritter). “To Riverdance music?”
This opening is a great capsule for the whole show, which is a comic reverie on life, love, guilt and even G-d. It’s Charlie (Justin Bartha), who’s trying to kill himself in the beach house. Emma, the realtor, isn’t having the best day either, and really needs to let this one to “a nice Jewish couple from South Orange” because among other things she’s despearate to get her green card, and needs the work. The couple is on their way, but “they’re old and Jewish, and it could be hours.” She suggests she might have been sent by G-d to prevent him from killing himself — but also admits that she’s “super stoned right now.” There’s a funny piece of African art with beads near the door. It’s not long before it’s toast, another piece of slapstick, like the bit with the cigarette. This one continues to get laughs right through the 90 minute play.
Emma calls townie fireman friend Myron (David Wilson Barnes) for drugs and advice. Ritter’s Emma is wholly endearing, funny and original, an update on the characters young Goldie Hawn played. She’s a wonderful contrast to Bartha’s low-key, mostly meek Charlie. “Do I look like the f**ing Lion King?” she yells at him when he asks her a detail. “Elephants are the ones with good memories, not lions,” Charlie deadpan replies. Barnes’ Myron speaks his mind — he’s on to Charlie, who makes up fibs about his occupation, among other things. “You’re a little too Jewy,” he tells Charlie when Charlie claims to be an air force pilot. Charlie retorts that the Israeli air force has a few Jews in it. Just when you get used to the contrast and interplay among these three, a fourth shows up: Kim (Anna Camp), a beautiful dumb blonde escort sent to Charlie to cheer him up by the friend who owns the house. “I’m going to college on the internet, studying feelings,” she explains, pulling on her topknot ponytail. Camp is as appealing as a golden retriever; she has no malice, no brains and a great body; her inane thoughts are delivered with so much conviction that at one point Bartha and Barnes had to hold, because they were cracking up.
There are serious underpinnings to this story, about misfits in a beach house. Each character has one filmed flashback (which include guest appearances from Kevin Conway, Tony Goldwyn, and S. Epatha Merkerson, who appear to be hugely enjoying themselves). Emma’s flashback — involving the dark secret behind her need to flee England and desperation for a green card, seems from another play — but the others work very well, particularly Myron’s last day as a drama teacher at Columbia High School in Maplewood. When Myron says that in the teachers’ lounge, “a coversation about anything devolves into complaining about everything,” it’s unexpectedly moving– partly because the Myron we’ve seen is so flippant and cutting. Barnes gives a multi-layered performance as a man who’s got a lot more depth, and brains, than is really good for him.
All New People, for all its situation comedy set-up, has serious questions to ask. What, after all, makes life worth living? How do you live with yourself if you’ve done something terrible? What if something terrible happened in the very moment you were talking to G-d? Can people change?
At times the play’s engine resorts to some “people trapped in a room” cliches– performances, truth telling — but handles them gracefully. Director Peter DuBois gets subtle and smart performances from all four, deftly highlighting the physical comedy, particularly with Camp’s Kim. He also creates some memorable tableaux (particularly the final image of the play). Bobby Frederick Tilley II’s costume designs instantly let us know who these people are — Emma has a funky jumper dress and booties, so you already know she’s an offbeat kind of realtor. And there’s just something funny about a man taking off a fireman coverall. Alexander Dodge’s set design gives us an evocative, two-level beach house. The insights and zingy dialogue keep coming and feel both new and authentic.
Braff has a truly original voice and four engaging characters in All New People. It’s a pleasure to spend time in their company.
All New People plays Tues- Sun, at Second Stage Theatre, 306 W. 43rd St., NYC, except for Aug. 1 when there is a Monday night performance. Matinees Wed., Sat. and Sun., except for Aug. 7. Check the Second Stage Calendar for showtimes.