Here we have another dysfunctional family just in time for the holiday season. This one, in the play with the title I have trouble remembering, is by a gifted writer named Nick Payne. His play Constellations was well received at the Royal Court in London earlier this year and will transfer to the West End this month.
If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet is an earlier work, first mounted in England in 2009 at the Bush Theatre, and now we have it courtesy of the Roundabout, at the Laura Pels Theatre on West 46th Street. It has been given an impeccable production, with an outstanding cast, and for the most part it’s been critically acclaimed.
It offers a marvelous role to film star Jake Gyllenhaal, allowing him a smashing New York debut (he has done theatre elsewhere, and was a hit in London in Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth.) He’s currently giving a bravura performance as “Terry”, the hippy slacker brother of “George” in this family, a character who drops in for a protracted visit after several personal reversals have left him homeless and bereft.
Accepted by his brother and sister-in-law Fiona (Enid Graham) he is exposed to his niece Anna, a troubled fifteen year old who is over weight and the subject of much mockery at her school. She’s been temporarily suspended for assaultng a classmate who had used a vile epithet against her mother.
Left alone with Anna from time to time, Terry who has remained resolutely adolescent well into his twenties, has an effect on her, and a bond is formed. But his sloppy and casual ways have become tiresome to the couple who are his hosts, and he decides to leave when he won’t apologize for having bitterly maligned his sister in law. Anna attempts to take her own life, and it’s clear that neither parent has been good at guidance; George is deeply concerned with the imminent demise of the world and everyone in it, due to neglect and inability to connect, and Fiona is a mother whose energy and talent has been split between her daughter and her career as a teacher.
These entanglements all occur on a metaphoric set; a pile of furniture lumped together center stage while constant rain falls from the front curtain. As each scene ends, the actors toss the furniture they’ve just used into a ditch filled with water. Director Michael Longhurst and his talented playwright are determined to let us understand that this family gives us merely a microscopic view of humanity as this 21st century begins its long journey to another millenium. At the play’s conclusion the stage is flooded; the actors are literally sloshing about in their shoes and sneakers, up to their ankles in water, which has over flowed from a tub on the second floor.
Though Mr. Payne writes with eloquence, and has created characters who are visceral and compelling, he doesn’t succeed in telling us much that we haven’t heard before, perhaps less metaphorically and more bluntly on nightly news casts. “Children who are different are subject to cruel bullying; parents who are bent on saving the world often neglect and damage their own children; free souls who choose not to conform are not easy to live with,” that sort of thing.
Mr. Gyllenhaal, Brian F. O’Byrne, Enid Graham and Annie Funke totally succeed in reaching us, in making us understand them, but it’s more difficult to show them much empathy. One wants to admonish them: “before you tackle the world and its problems, look to your own back yard and do some good work there.”
I haven’t seen Constellations, but the reports are that Mr. Payne has learned his craft, and it is a much more cohesive and moving play. This earlier work separates us from the characters for they are metaphoric symbols of a society gone wrong and I found myself more interested than moved by this non-linear tale of their sorrowful existence.
A playwright to watch, a fine cast to flesh out his characters, but a play which never quite catches a spark to ignite a more passionate response.
Roundabout Theatre’s production of If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet is onstage through December 23, 2012 at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, The Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who, in his more than 60 year career on Broadway as a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has recently written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
Richard Seff podcasts: