Zach Braff’s All New People is a curious hybrid, three parts silly sitcom and one part modernist despairfest. Since the sitcom makes up the first hour of the play, it’s easy to assume that the whole experience will turn out to be insignificant. But then the change occurs: characters who seemed to exist mainly for laughs turn out to have problems and pasts of a most serious nature, and storylines that once appeared meaningless or arbitrary turn out to include unforgivable offenses with life-shattering consequences. I’m not sure that the transition from superficiality to deep angst is entirely successful — it’s so abrupt, finally, and transparent — but if you can get over the play’s initial profane hijinks, there’s a vision of modern life here that, if not exactly original, at least deserves consideration.
This Jobsite Theater production starts jarringly enough: a young man named Charlie tries to hang himself before our eyes. Then a realtor intrudes, saves Charlie’s life and demands to know why he almost interfered with her efforts to sell the beach house in which they stand. Emma the Realtor is British, doesn’t have a green card or a visa, and is anxiously ready to exchange comic dialogue with suicidal Charlie as she waits for the old Jewish couple whom she’s supposed to be meeting.
But the next arrival isn’t the couple — it’s Myron, a pushy firefighter who likes to “fuck with people” and who also happens to be Long Beach Island’s major drug dealer. Myron doesn’t believe that Charlie’s really suicidal or, as Charlie claims, a killer: he thinks the man only wants to seduce unsuspecting Emma with his Byronic self-dramatizing.
Just as these three ill-fitted personages are finding their comic rhythm, another visitor arrives: paid escort Kim, who’s been hired to sweeten Charlie’s birthday — yes — with sexual favors of just about any sort he can order up. As Kim speaks cheerfully of her carnal history — she thought she had crabs once, but it turned out to be scabies — other characters snort cocaine, smoke a joint, use foul language, all of it without any significant subtext other than “Look what’s possible in a world without censorship.”
Finally, things get serious: we find out the backstories of each character on stage, and they’re not a bit funny. We can be forgiven if this lurch into sobriety doesn’t fully transport us, but at least we’re made aware that Braff does have a vision to offer. The contemporary world, it would appear, is given over to terrible secrets that, if they were fully acknowledged, would pain them unbearably. Humanity’s only saving grace is solidarity: In our irremediable anguish, we can at least take encouragement from each other’s company.
Now this is fine if you’re sitting on some horrific personal history, but if my observations are correct, sex and drugs continue to attract even people whose backgrounds don’t include awful crimes. Or to put it another way, this modernist despair is a little old-fashioned (The Wasteland was published in 1922; Gatsby in 1925 and The Sun Also Rises in 1926). Still, I have to admire the actors who bring us Braff’s parable, cutting-edge or not. As Charlie, Chris Holcom is a likable, sympathetic anti-hero, who may or may not have killed six people and who may or may not have once been a fighter pilot. As British Emma, Meg Heimstead is comically garrulous and gregarious, always in search of the next narcotic and happy to imagine that God may have sent her to the beach house specifically to prevent
Charlie’s suicide. Jack Holloway as obnoxious Myron is perfectly determined to be a bull in everyone else’s china shop, and Katie Castonguay as prostitute Kim couldn’t be happier to chat about every type of sex she’s ever had, plus the one type she’d rather avoid. There are several moments during the play when flashbacks are presented as video projections; in these, local actors Matt Lunsford, Gavin Hawk and Elizabeth Fendrick turn in tiptop work.
Paul Potenza’s staging is first-rate, and Brian Smallheers’ modern living-room set is attractively realistic. The characters are neatly costumed by Beth Tepe-Robertson.
All New People offers several good laughs, several choice obscenities, and a couple of late stabs at deeper significance. If it does nothing else, it proves the vitality of the First Amendment and that nothing, but nothing can shock a modern audience (did I mention the pink dildo?).
See it for its surfaces — and just maybe for its insights.
All New People runs through June 1 at the Straz Center's Shimberg Playhouse, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa,
813-229-STAR. Runs through June 1 at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, $28. jobsitetheater.org.