If you can’t be original, at least be amusing. Zach Braff takes the hint and scores with “All New People,” a morbidly funny play about the trendy new existential condition of being young, adorable, and miserable. The four winsome specimens here — who meet cute at the empty Long Island beach house where one of them has gone in the dead of winter to kill himself — have been cast with a keen eye and directed with a firm hand by Peter DuBois, who grasps both the mordant humor and the narcissistic hook of the play’s premise.
Braff is one of those multi-hyphenate creatives who can’t sit still, with credits ranging from his starring gig in longrunning NBC skein “Scrubs” to writing, directing and toplining 2004 feature “Garden State.” The strong visual sense that comes from working in movies and TV kicks in here with the play’s morbidly funny opening image of a guy named Charlie (Justin Bartha) standing on a chair with a noose around his neck, smoking one last cigarette. But instead of stepping off when he’s smoked out, this incompetent suicide candidate thrashes around, looking for an ashtray so he can put out the butt.
Popular on Variety
Bartha (“The Hangover”) milks this priceless sight gag for all it’s worth, adroitly establishing the lovable character of the woebegone hero and setting the comic tone for the entire play. The “new people” in Braff’s world may be clinically depressed, but, being consummate egotists, they are also acutely aware of how clinically depressed is supposed to look these days.
In a society that places a high value on its own superficiality, looks count for a lot, and the physical world of this dark comedy looks fabulous. Alexander Dodge (Tony-nommed for “Present Laughter”) gives us a decorator’s sterile vision of a chic Long Island beach “cottage,” with sliding screens opening onto a spacious front room fitted with a huge white sofa and decorated with expensive if meaningless pieces of modern art.
The other folk who gravitate to this desolate beach house resemble modernist art forms themselves — attractive, amusing diversions with no depth. Like Charlie, they all have secret sorrows that account for their colorful eccentricities, and the eventual disclosure of these personal secrets (in screened projections featuring well-known thesps like S. Epatha Merkerson) glibly passes for drama in the event-lite plot.
Arriving just in time to rescue Charlie, the next person on the scene is Emma (Krysten Ritter), a motormouth real-estate agent desperate to make a big sale so she can buy herself a phony visa and avoid being sent back home to England. With her glass-cutting voice and waif-like appearance, Ritter (“Confessions of a Shopaholic,” the upcoming “Vamps”) turns the desperately needy and perpetually stoned Emma into an endearing oddity.
Hot on Emma’s wobbly heels is Myron (David Wilson Barnes), all suited up in his professional capacity as the island’s fire chief and dope dealer. Barnes (“Becky Shaw”) is one fine actor, and it’s easy to miss the shadow that periodically passes over Myron’s goofy face, undoing his image as a muy macho guy who is just too tough to cry.
The final visitor is Kim (Anna Camp), a high-end hooker sent up from New York to cheer Charlie on his 35th birthday. Although this adorably dumb blonde is the hoariest stereotype of them all, Camp (“True Blood,” Second Stage’s “The Scene”) looks fine in the role (with a stylish assist from costumer Bobby Frederick Tilley II) and plays it with sweet abandon.
The truth is that none of these “new people” is a particularly novel character invention. But they sure are cute, and Braff knows how to write funny lines of dialogue for them to express (or hide) the profound alienation that governs their aimless lives.
The best thing about the voices of these contemporary Ancient Mariners is that they come in their own distinctive idioms: bitter-funny for Charlie; oddball-funny for Emma; cynical-funny for Myron; and stupid-funny for Kim. Braff’s obvious point is that the only way people can survive in an age of social alienation is to make their own connections. But at least he doesn’t force them to speak the same boring language.