September 29, 2012

How "If There is I Haven’t Found It Yet" Lost Its Way

If There is I Haven’t Found It Yet, the dysfunctional family drama that opened at Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre this week, has been getting all kinds of attention because the movie actor Jake Gyllenhaal chose it for his New York stage debut. Gyllenhaal acquits himself well enough (click here to read an interview with him). But nearly everything else about this production is too cute for its own good.

And that starts with its title, which is not only self-consciously opaque and hard to remember but not nearly as clever as its playwright Nick Payne, only 25 when the play debuted in London in 2009, clearly intended it to be.

The plot, however, holds promise. It's ostensibly about Anna, a chubby teen who gets bullied at school by mean-girl classmates and neglected at home by parents who are too busy with their careers. Her savior is supposed to be her Uncle Terry, a slacker who shows up for an unannounced visit, pays her the attention she craves and tries to persuade her that there’s more to life than her current predicament suggests.  

Critics both here and in London have applauded the play’s naturalistic language (click here to read some of the raves on StageGrade). But most of today’s young playwrights seem comfortable with dialog, it’s the rest of it—believable characters, nimble plots—that gives them trouble.  

 Payne does better than most but he crams in so many trendy topics—global warming, school bullying, the vapidity of Hollywood movies—that Anna’s tale, the most compelling of his storylines, often gets pushed too far to the side. 

Yet what really sends this production careening in the wrong direction is a cutesy decision that director Michael Longhurst and set designer Beowulf Boritt have made in a vain attempt to be hip.

Instead of using a naturalistic set, they’ve opted for one that screams metaphorical. The centerpiece of their concept is a transparent moat placed between the stage and the audience. Streams of water are falling into it as theatergoers enter. The shower stops once the play begins but the moat’s role has only just begun. 

For a pile of furniture has been heaped in the middle of the stage. The actors yank out chairs, tables, even a refrigerator as needed and then discard them after each scene, usually by tossing them into the moat.  And there’s more water to come.

I suppose it’s all meant to symbolize a combination of our careless disrespect for the environment and for family life and, who knows, maybe there’s even an allusion to Noah and the Flood in there too.  But I think we could have gotten the point of the play without all the splashing water because the actors are fully committed to what they’re doing.

That’s particularly true of Annie Funke, the young actress who plays Anna and is the best thing about the production. She shows both the vulnerability and the resilience in the emotionally battered Anna and there’s not a faux cute thing about her very brave performance. 

Gyllenhaal isn’t bad either, although he speaks with a thick British accent that sometimes makes it hard to understand what he’s saying.  And although this isn’t his first time onstage (he won the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Newcomer when he starred in the West End revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth back in 2002) he still doesn’t have his projection techniques down, which makes it chancy that you’ll hear him in the last row of the theater—or even, sometimes, in one of the middle rows where I was sitting. 

To my surprise, the weakest link for me was Brian F. O’Byrne’s performance as Terry’s brother and Anna’s dad, a professor so obsessed with charting the carbon footprint of everything the family does that he, well, can’t see the forest for the trees. O’Byrne still seems to be finding his way into the role but even a middling performance from this fine actor is worth seeing (click here to read an interview with him).

Whether the play is worth seeing is another matter.  But if you go, avoid sitting in the front row if you can. The people there were continually spattered as objects were thrown into the moat.  And, as the water level rose, I could see them leaning back in their seats in apparent fear that the whole mess would flow right onto them.

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