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Ex-'Scrubs' Zach Braff tries his hand at a play

Zach Braff is standing in the green room of Second Stage Theatre and staring at the walls.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Zach Braff is standing in the green room of Second Stage Theatre and staring at the walls.

They're covered in posters from the company's previous productions, each one framed and signed by the cast. There's virtually no room for another, though Braff pivots until he finds a blank area over a door and near posters for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark."

"There's an open spot right there," he says happily. "That'll do."

Braff is scouting locations for the day when a poster of his new work graces the walls. While he's already up there as an actor in last summer's "Trust," the new artwork will have deeper meaning. This time, Braff will be listed as the playwright.

"It's by far the most intimidating, humbling experience," he says of "All New People," his debut as a theater writer. "I think the biggest thing is not letting your ego get in the way of making the play better."

Braff is as sweet and open as his best-known TV character, the daydreaming Dr. John "J.D." Dorian on "Scrubs." On this day, he looks tired and yet elated from the many hours spent birthing a play, several days worth of beard scruff giving him the look of an undergrad nearing finals.

"For me, when I see a piece of theater that works — I've got goose bumps or I've got tears in my eyes or I'm belly laughing — there's no higher high. So I would love the challenge of trying to pull that off."

His dark, 90-minute off-Broadway comedy, about four strangers in a beach house in the dead of winter, represents Braff's first piece of writing that's 100 percent original since he wrote and directed the 2004 film "Garden State," his sweet ode to disillusionment starring himself and Natalie Portman.

Set on Long Beach Island, a summer vacation spot on the Jersey Shore that he insists is still "un-Snookified," "All New People" begins with the main character Charlie — a 35-year-old suicidal air traffic controller — trying to escape the world when he is interrupted by a prostitute hired to cheer him up, a real estate agent with immigration problems and a firefighter checking on homes.

Braff, 36, came up with the concept a few years ago while scouting for a summer rental for his father as a birthday present. "Some ideas had been brewing and when I got there — this desolate ghost town covered in snow — I was taken with it," he says.

The play stars David Wilson Barnes, Justin Bartha, Anna Camp and Krysten Ritter. Braff wrote the suicidal lead with the notion that he might perform it, too, but was talked out of it — and is grateful he was.

"To be in it, without the luxury of being able to step outside of it, wouldn't have been good for the play," he says. "I thought it would have been an amazing, challenging and fun to take on, but this is plenty challenging enough."

Braff reunites on the project with director Peter DuBois, who also directed him in "Trust." In the past few months, the two have met almost every day to work on the new play at a picnic table on the roof of the Second Stage Theatre.

"He's an incredibly open, collaborative person," says DuBois. "He's got such a wonderful, absurdist take on the world and there's a wonderful sense of both emotional honesty but also comic absurdism."

Finding Braff tinkering with a play is in many ways a return to his roots. He grew up in South Orange, N.J., the son of a lawyer father and a psychologist mother, and some of his first jobs were in Public Theater productions of "Macbeth" and "Twelfth Night" in Central Park.

"I got into entertainment through theater. That's where it all began for me," he says. "My father did community theater and I was the 8-year-old in the audience watching him play Horace Vandergelder in 'Hello, Dolly!' and thinking, 'This is the coolest thing I've ever seen.'"

After eight and a half years aboard the hectic comedy "Scrubs," Braff wanted to do something "completely different" and recently filmed the dark indie "High Cost of Living." He also has a part in Sam Remi's "Oz," a prequel to "The Wizard of Oz" with Mila Kunis and James Franco that starts filming later this year. But the play is his baby.

"I always thought to myself, 'A goal of mine in life is to create my own piece of theater.' So it doesn't come completely out of the blue," he says. "For me, some of the most wonderful experiences I've had as an entertainer have either been sitting in the audience of a theater or being in a play."

To those who wonder why he doesn't just turn the script into a movie, Braff says they're missing the point. "The point is to do a piece of theater — to take on the challenge of creating something that was the very thing that moved me to want to be someone who was involved in entertainment."

Braff doesn't expect his play to move to Broadway, considering it more an indie film than a summer blockbuster. But he's been surprised by show business before, most notably when he was shocked to take home a Grammy Award for the soundtrack of "Garden State."

"Of all the awards to win," he says, with a laugh. "Of course, I know nothing about writing or creating music, and yet I have a lot of musician friends. So they walk by my Grammy on my shelf and give it the evil eye."