Zach Braff’s All New People: Could Irish Music Drive You to Suicide?

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How It’s New York:  The play takes place in Loveladies, NJ– on the Jersey Shore.
How It’s Irish:  It’s Jirish!   there’s Riverdance (ish) music!   It’s also somewhat Celto-Slav, because director Peter DuBois spent time in Prague in the 90s, and is in my dissertation.

Zach Braff

As the only New York journalist who writes for both Irish Music Magazine and the Forward,  I’ve got to keep my Jirishness up!  So I did a Q&A for The Forward with Scrubs/Garden State/Chicken Little actor Zach Braff.  He was about to open hie new play– not in it, but one he wrote, at Second Stage Theatre Company, All New People.  I also reviewed the play for Baristanet, which is a New Jersey site that covers Millburn (where I live) and South Orange (Braff’s hometown, two over from mine).   I also chatted with Braff a bit about being a Jersey boy there.

For preshow music, we hear bagpipes wailing away (we’re later told it’s from Riverdance, though I’m not entirely sure of that).  Once the show begins, the music becomes onstage, from another room– and it’s playing while the main character, Charlie (Justin Bartha) stands on a chair with a noose around his neck.

It’s not a coincidence.  He was dumped by a girlfriend who just LOVED the stuff, though he fuking hated it.  Still she would dance around to it in her underwear and it made him happy.  That she left him is not the only reason he’s suicidal– he’s an air traffic controller, or he was.  One day, all depressed because of his Irish-music loving girlfriend’s departure (she was too young for him and he knew it wouldn’t last), he gets philosophical watching two ants battle over a crumb.  He even prays.  While he’s doing that, of course, he causes a tragedy (THAT, my friends, is Jewish humor, not Jirish; really dark and philosophical; you believe but it doesn’t especially make things nicer… the whole “while I was praying people died” thing.  It’s also right in there with Jewish humor that oddballs show up one by one to keep him from killing himself).

Here’s the Review:

….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.

Justin Bartha, Krysten Ritter, Anna Camp, David Wilson Barnes (@Joan Marcus)

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.

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