The sitcom star Zach Braff works hard not to be thought of as a sitcom star.
He became famous—and made his money—as the pleasantly goofy medical student at the center of the hospital dramedy Scrubs, which debuted on NBC in 2001. But in his spare time he also wrote and directed the well-received 2004 indie hit movie Garden State. His bios note his Shakespeare work with the Public Theater—parts in a George C. Wolfe production of Macbeth in 1998 and a Central Park Twelfth Night in 2002. Last summer, he returned to the New York stage, and acquitted himself more than ably in Paul Weitz’s dark comedy Trust at the Second Stage.
Now he is back at the Second Stage, not as an actor but as a playwright; his debut effort, All New People, opened there last week. If not exactly an ambitious work, it is an attempt at a serious one, another dark comedy about peoples’ secrets, about their pasts, about trying to find small moments of happiness in what can be a dispiriting world.
It is sharply funny, nimbly directed by Peter DuBois (who also directed Trust and, a year and half earlier, yet another pitch-black Second Stage comedy, the excellent Becky Shaw) and it features a respectable ensemble cast. If its characters are one-dimensional, its progression overly schematic and its attempt at profundity misplaced, it has still achieved its goal. Mr. Braff can rightly be called a playwright, one produced at a major off-Broadway company.
All New People opens with Charlie, a bearded and bathrobed 30-something played by Justin Bartha, standing on a chair, his head in a noose, enjoying a cigarette and preparing to hang himself in a stylish, art-filled, double-height living room with a huge wall of windows looking out on a gray, impassive sky. He takes his last drag and, thus arranged, realizes he cannot reach the ashtray placed on a countertop nearby. He’s flummoxed—ridiculously, endearingly worried about discarding a butt when he’s about to discard his body. It’s a charming, attention-getting opening, funny and subtle, and indicative of some of the smart and dexterous comedy to come. (Not all of that comedy is subtle and clever: moments later, when the real-estate agent Emma, played by Krysten Ritter, arrives to show the house, Charlie will stumble in trying to get down from the chair and end up hanging from the noose, only to be saved by Emma.)
It is Charlie’s birthday, he is distraught for reasons he at first won’t reveal and he just wants to be alone. But the guests just keep arriving: First Emma, a manic, and smart-ass Brit with an unsuccessful real-estate career and a bit of a drug problem; then Myron (David Wilson Barnes), a failed high-school drama teacher turned drug-dealing firefighter, in unrequited love with Emma; and finally Kim (Anna Camp), a ditzy prostitute with—you’ll be shocked to learn—a heart of gold. They’re four lost souls—snarky, slapsticky lost souls—serendipitously coming together in the middle of winter at an empty summer house in an empty beach town.
The town is Loveladies, on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. This is familiar territory for Mr. Braff—his trademark Garden State verisimilitude, familiar from his shot-on-location-near-where-he-grew-up film—and it gives the play the slightest sense of grounding. (The Observer should disclose both that we knew and were friendly with Mr. Braff at the suburban New Jersey high school we both attended, which makes cameos in both All New People and Garden State, and that for the past 30 years we’ve spent a week or two each summer on Long Beach Island.)
But other than that across-the-Hudson veneer—and the copious drugs consumed—this is a fairly standard and slim drunken-night-of-revelations play, though one with a number of great one-liners and a cast that delivers them with excellent timing. Mr. Barnes, as the smarmy Myron, is particularly delightful, just as he was in Becky Shaw, though he is helped by getting many of the best lines. “I’m not a prostitute; I’m an escort,” Kim protests at one point. “And I’m not a fireman; I’m a pressurized-water courier,” Myron parries.
There’s enough similarly sharp dialogue to keep the audience thoroughly engaged and more than sufficiently amused. But as Mr. Braff moves toward a message, All New People gets less effective and more obvious. Ultimately, and with a little help from his new friends, Charlie realizes that things aren’t so terrible, that the crap in his life, too, shall pass, and that it’s nice to be with other people, especially on what we’ve learned is his birthday. “What if it’s just for tonight?” he asks near the play’s end. “What if we say, just for tonight, everything’s OK?”
All New People’s earlier abundant humor and biting cynicism are, by this point, gone. The characters have become earnest, things have been wrapped up, we have gotten our final-scene lesson. Just like in a sitcom.