All New People
by Zach Braff
Duke of York’s Theatre, London
3rd March 2012
Directed by Peter DuBois
There is a “major American film star in London in American play” style now, and we’ve seen a few. They have decent one-scene sets, a very economically-viable small cast of three or four, sky-high seat prices (£49.50 each), and (always) absolutely superb acting. The acting is invariably “better” than the play. These guys are VERY good. Every time, you walk away knowing why their careers have taken such a stellar curve.
Zach Braff’s All New People opened as off-Broadway without him playing the main role. The writer as lead actor in theitr own play is a rarity – Neil LaButte, and of course Noel Coward are others. In London, he’s the main role, and has surrounded himself with three first-rate English thespians, two of them playing Americans (and very well).
Charlie and Myron
The first two minutes with Charlie (Zach Braff) trying to hang himself are such brilliant black comedy that you sense it can’t quite achieve that level again, and you’ll be right: it doesn’t. The story is about a suicidal air traffic controller, holed up on Long Beach Island, New Jersey in winter in the house of a millionaire friend. Three strangers interrupt his planned suicide. The four actors work effortlessly together. All of them create great characters … and the costumes were considerably improved from those shown on the poster. Emma is a British house rental agent. Myron is an ex-teacher turned firefighter and drug dealer, Kim is an escort (and as good a loveable tart role as you’ll ever see). The roles are stereotypical to a degree. I think an Elizabethan audience would recognise The Tart and the Swaggering Soldier (here, a firefighter). Braff does the angst-consumed Brandoesque actor-bit brilliantly too. I don’t know why, but British actors can never get that full on trembling, muttering nervous breakdown intensity in the same way.
Emma and Charlie
It’s black comedy, and the serious conclusion is somewhat “worthy”. The comedy is much-vaunted. Some bits ARE very funny indeed. Kim’s account of the crucial difference between crabs and scabies stands out. Kim is an escort (i.e. prostitute) gifted to Charlie for his 35th birthday. The contrast with the British realtor Emma is huge and the revised costumes help that. Braff puts in a several self-reflecting Jewish references as jokes, maybe an essential thing for an American, somewhat forced in Britain.
There are three filmed inserts, showing the back-stories of Emma, Kim and Myron (featuring David Bradley, Joseph Millson and Amanda Redman on film), and a fourth insert which combines live action (Charlie in front of the screen) with film. These are all well-filmed, and shown as dead square picture formats. The filmed inserts use tight close-ups projected at huge size – the whole proscenium area. Kim’s is particularly funny. Until Charlie reveals the reason for his attempted suicide, you are genuinely in the air.
L to R: Myron, Charlie, Kim, Emma
The collapsing ceiling when Myron finally got rid of the noose was excellent. It may be a single set, but it’s expensive. It has a ceiling, and it snows through the window, and it looks good.
While I enjoyed all the performances, in the end I didn’t think it a “great” play. Good; excellent dialogue, better than your average Ayckbourn by a considerable distance, but not great. It was competent and well-constructed and paced, and well-directed, but not innovative, nor did it have that indefinable edge that great theatre does. Definitely recommended, and you won’t regret going, but in the end over-reaching itself in its attempt to be meaningful. It felt late sixties / early seventies in a way I can’t define, though the comedy lines are far cruder than a 60s writer could have got away with.
It was also vastly over-priced compared to a cast of twenty-six and complex revolving sets, and musicians at the National Theatre or RSC for less. If American stars are doing London theatre for ego, then a little loss-leading would be in order. The seat prices mean they can’t tour the productions either which is a shame. This deserves to be seen outside London, but when we go in Salisbury or Poole, £20 is around the top. Bath can get £30. At £49.50 it couldn’t play in the provinces even though the set and staging would easily fit any theatre.
Tons of smoking. The cigarette business in the first minute is fabulous, tears down the face funny. The ciggies are the new odourless theatrical variety. You could talk about bad examples, but among the simulated cocaine snorting and glue sniffing it’s irrelevant.
Theatre on the day
The Duke of Yorks is a typical grotty West End theatre. Last time we were here, it was Orlando Bloom, so add “British-born actors who are Hollywood stars rather than British stage actors” to the first paragraph above. The programme (thin and £4) said it was aimed to pull the Facebook generation into the theatre. Leave them out if they can’t survive 100 minutes without bringing in pint glasses of foul smelling beer. I still don’t see why (some) theatres encourage this. As ever, a couple of rows in front, one had to push his way out of the centre of the row for a pee before the 100 minutes (no interval) was up.
Why do people with REALLY serious coughs and colds ruin the play for thirty people around them? The constant distraction when we went might have reduced the effect from “great” to “good” even! We had someone exploding, snivelling and barking right through right behind us. She sounded as if she were about to vomit several times. People two rows in front of us were wincing at her sneezes. DO NOT COME. If you must (and £49.50 tickets are an incentive to crawl in with terminal flu and spread it about a bit), then two suggestions. Olbas pastilles effectively suppress coughs. A bottle of water sipped throughout keeps the coughing down.
Like cigarettes, I’m now going to note every time a play uses recorded songs and fails to credit them. Add this one.