American actor Zach Braff has something of a cult following as a result of the US comedy show Scrubs and he also acquired some decent indie cred from his self-penned-and-directed film, Garden State. All New People – another self-penned effort in which, for the London production, he also takes the lead – undoes nearly all of that. It’s hard to imagine that this piece of trite, lazy and misogynistic writing would ever reach a stage without a star name attached to it.
It starts promisingly enough. Charlie (Braff) is trying to hang himself in his friend Kevin’s deserted beach house, and there are a few moments of pitch perfect, wordless black comedy as, just before doing the deed, he struggles to get rid of his cigarette stub. He is saved from death by Eve Myles’ perky realtor Emma, who is hoping to show the Long Beach Island house to prospective clients; unfortunately the whole thing goes downhill rapidly from this point, a process only intensified by the arrival of two more characters.
The idea of a disparate group of strangers thrown together in an isolated location isn’t exactly an original one, but in the right hands it can often be fertile. But any comic or dramatic potential the situation might have had is fatally scuppered by Graff’s inability to write anything approaching a convincing character. Myles, hampered by a fluctuating English accent, is an illegal resident in need of a green card, and though, of all the characters, hers has the most potential to be likeable, her performance is poorly pitched, too often veering into hysteria. As her friend, would-be-suitor and drugs supplier Myron, Paul Hilton seems to be there just to supply crude laughs and to provide a constant reminder that, in comparison, Charlie is a nice guy after all. And Graff seems desperate for us to think that Charlie is essentially decent and good: there’s an ugly whiff of grandstanding about the role and the audience is expected to accept his remorse and cod philosophizing as signs of depth: when Emma’s announces out of nowhere that “you really are cute, Charlie” it’s clear we are expected to agree, even though his nice guy status seems to stem from nothing more than his refusal to sleep with a prostitute.
Ah, yes: the prostitute. It’s here that the production moves from merely incompetent to actively offensive. Susannah Fielding’s Kim is a comedy hooker, her stupidity a source of laughter and nothing more. It’s difficult to believe that the writing could be so thin, you find yourself waiting for her to do more, to be more than this one-dimensional trope, but no, she’s just a vacuous blonde bimbo and it’s clear just how little Braff thinks of her character that when everyone else gets to reveal their personal trauma (because hey, we’re all people, everybody hurts), the one person you’d expect to have glimpsed personal darkness – the one who sells her body to strangers for a living – only gets to sing a stupid song.
The play is also clumsily structured. It lacks any sense of narrative drive, and while the insertion of video back-stories could have livened it up, these are either pointless or badly misjudged in tone. Kim’s segment is actively nasty, and presents Charlie’s friend Kevin – owner of the borrowed beach house – as so hateful a man that the fact of their friendship casts further doubts on the idea of Charlie as a supposedly decent guy. Emma’s flashback adds nothing to her character, while Myron’s both lacks veracity (since it features him on Facebook in the year 2000, a mere four years before it was launched) and undermines his character’s moment of revelation, since we already know his ‘big secret’. Charlie’s video insert is the most flawed, and smacks of a lack of confidence in both the piece and the performer: when the reasons for Charlie’s suicide attempt are finally revealed, the audience’s focus is distractingly split by the video projection, robbing the moment of any residual emotional power.
There is almost nothing to like about this show, and rarely have I left a theatre more annoyed. Peter DuBois’ direction is uneven, so the play never settles on a coherent tone, but the real culprit here is Braff: there are flashes of clever writing and the play contains a few genuinely smart and funny lines; if he’d only taken as much time and the trouble over the rest of the play (and possibly taken a course in equality studies to sort out his attitude towards women), this might not have felt like such a lazy exercise. What solace we are supposed to take from the fact that ‘in 100 years, it’s all new people’ I am not entirely sure: for me the most resonant line in the play was Myron’s “We’re all in pain, Charlie!” – but that was mainly because I thought he was talking about the audience.