All New People - Duke of York’s Theatre until the 28 April 2012
The tone for the evening is set pretty much immediately; the music playing over the PA system is so hipster-y that you spend the first 5 minutes waiting for Zooey Deschanel to emerge from the wings wearing a vintage polka-dot dress whilst eating a cupcake. Also immediately obvious to a jaded theatre-goer is that the audience waiting expectantly is notably younger than those entering Hay Fever, the Noel Coward-revival currently playing 50 metres down St Martins Lane.
Can we go as far as to make rather-too-obvious allusions about a baton changing hands? Well, yes and no, Braff’s ‘All New People’ is his first attempt at writing for the stage and there is a definite sense that he is a little green around the edges; in Coward the jokes slip down easier than the regularly consumed cocktails that punctuate his plays, for Braff the punchlines are clearly influenced by his background in TV, harsher and with a more obvious break for audience laughter.
However there are signs that, if Braff sticks with it, he could be a genuinely talented new comic voice for the stage. And it is a voice that is desperately needed. Comedy appears to be treading water in the West End; if you strip out the celebrity revivals (Lenny Henry in Comedy of Errors), the old-hands (the annual Ayckbourn) and the reworkings (One Man, Two Guv’nors) then we are left with a rather bare cupboard.
Braff is a talented writer and knows how to craft a gag, either verbal or visual. The play starts with a well-judged physical comedy routine where Braff, about to hang himself, discovers he has nowhere to ash his final cigarette. The rest of the play is stuffed full of decent punchlines, even if it rather too often veers towards the profane but this could be a natural reaction against the restrictions of TV comedy. Braff has a very referential and post-modern style, which judges its target audience astutely. These are characters that clearly exist in the real-world, even if it is a much abstracted one.
The post-modern tics bleed into the use of mixed medium; with a one-set, one-time plot there is little opportunity to delve naturalistically into the character’s backstory. So in a slick move Braff uses a vast video screen to deliver the relevant background detail. However it is in these sections that the play begins to unravel and it does so to an extent that makes the overall play unfortunately flawed.
It is evident that the play is meant to have a certain emotional depth. There is clearly supposed to be a balance between comedy and pathos, and it is not written as an out-and-out farce. Each of the characters has been given a reason for being at the beach house but this deeper meaning is delivered with a heavy hand, and delivered unevenly. It is quite clear what Braff finds easier to write and while the comedy floats off the page, the pathos often sinks like a lead weight.
The outcome is to create a tonally unbalanced play, where the comedy is made unintentionally uncomfortable through the attempt to underpin the script with a greater dramatic weight. The characters are actually made to seem less believable by given back stories that do not hang together with the main action and with relevations that are not justified by the quality of the writing.
It is Emma (Eve Myles) that suffers most from this; her big reveal at the play’s climax is quite shocking and close to the bone but the problem is that the script has not done nearly enough to earn this conclusion. The end result is a slightly unpleasant sensation of having been manipulated by these characters rather than sharing in their alienation.
The one part that does feel fully rounded is that of Charlie (Braff) and it is impressive that he has written himself a role that is very passive and does not have all the best lines. Braff inhabits Charlie with a manic but nervous energy and if in the early stages he is playing to the gallery a little too much, he, more than the rest of the cast, is clearly capable of dropping into a lower gear when the script calls for it.
In many ways All New People is reminiscent of Yasmina Reza’s ‘Gods of Carnage’ (currently enjoying a second life in the cinema as the Polanski-directed Carnage). It is a four-hander where all the characters appeared trapped in one location with no ability to leave; they constantly shift in your affections, and make- and break- alliances with each other at a dizzying rate.
Your feelings about the play are also likely to be split in a similar way to Gods of Carnage. Reza’s play is enjoyable if you are a white, middle-aged, city-dwelling, cultural liberal, and if it isn’t, it may well feel interminable. Likewise your impression of All New People will depend on how much you enjoy watching self-obsessed good looking young people who live in a bubble of their own problems cocooned by a lifestyle of drinking and drug-taking. Braff has been peddling this particular brand of hipster ennui for a long time now and it seems he has found a new medium in which to channel it. It is unfortunate that the desire for a deeper meaning fundamentally flaws what is otherwise a reasonable funny play.
Reviews for the Twitter Generation:
Zach Braff’s All New People proves he has it in him to be a gifted comic writer but the failure to achieve emotional depth leaves the production problematically flawed.