No one can accuse Zach Braff of violating the first law of playwrighting: Write what you know.
The former "Scrubs" star and creator of the gentle film "Garden State" clearly has not strayed far from his comfort zone while penning his debut stage piece "All New People," a dark comedy that opened Monday at Second Stage Theatre. The elements are all plucked from a Braff catalog of greatest hits.
Depressed lead inclined to self-absorption? Check. Small band of kind-hearted misfit friends? Yup. New Jersey? Oh, yes. A woman who is both adorable and a bit of a mess? Gottcha. Smart use of cool music? Of course. (This time it's the band Gaelic Storm.) Even Braff's personal pilot training bleeds into the script. The result is both overly familiar and yet familiarly comfortable.
Justin Bartha plays Charlie, who suffers from depression, as a charisma-less mope and one prone to sudden bouts of explosive anger, which blunts his sweetness. He turns out to be the least interesting character on stage and spends much of it slumped in a chair or silently aghast at the weirdness going on around him.
As the play opens, Charlie is trying to hang himself in a luxurious beach house in New Jersey in the dead of winter. Why he has arrived at this point will be revealed at the end, but suffice it to say it's overwrought.
His plan is interrupted when an English real estate agent barges in, trying to show the house. Krysten Ritter plays the realtor as quirky, lovely and crazy. If anyone saw "Garden State," she's basically Natalie Portman with a British accent — though the accent Ritter adopts is so terrible as to be distracting.
Two others soon arrive: a firefighter played by David Wilson Barnes, who is also the local drug dealer; and an air-head high-end escort, played by Anna Camp, who has been sent by a friend of Charlie to cheer him up. These are the strongest characters of the four and the best acted.
The four form a faux-family, boozing and getting high while revealing more about their lives and secrets, all slathered with pop culture references to Facebook, "Beverly Hills Cop," the Sims and "Home Alone." Braff is trying to explore love, friendship and hypocrisy, but ultimately he returns to what made "Scrubs" and "Garden State" so disarming — namely how a band of ragtag strangers can fill the void in modern hearts.
Or, as the firefighter says to Charlie: "Even in your lonesome existence, there is love, there is compassion, there is a genuine desire on behalf of these kind strangers to see you discover something that makes your life worth living."
The plot is supposed to be aided by four mini-movies projected on a scrim, but they come unexpectedly, interrupt the flow and are uneven in tone. Each are vignettes — starring Kevin Conway, Tony Goldwyn and S. Epatha Merkerson — that don't add much to the story and seem forced, as if the playwright wasn't willing to completely abandon film.
While the pacing is refreshing — the play unspools in real time over 90 minutes — it leaves little resolved and there are clunky moments, including a monologue from "The Merchant of Venice" that seems to have been included simply to prove Braff knows the Bard. And, most unforgivably, Braff throws in mention of a rape right at the end, where it sits uncomfortably.
"All New People" often seems like a collection of interesting moments or dialogue plucked from a first-time playwright's notebook over years and fitted together into a script. Director Peter DuBois has clearly helped smooth out Braff's narrative but it still needs buffing. They might need all new people.