Nick Payne Pens a Pooper with If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet

A deluge of disastrous direction washes out Jake Gyllenhaal's otherwise promising stage debut

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Funke and Gyllenhaal in If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet.

The only thing anyone wonders, wants to read, or even needs to know about a pretentious, elliptical and utterly worthless load of tongue-tied gibberish imported from England by the Roundabout Theatre Co. called If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet is the answer to a single question: How is Jake Gyllenhaal? In his New York stage debut, I am pleased to inform you, he acts the impossible role of a human zero in a profoundly professional manner. He has energy, presence and a theatrical dynamic—qualities as affecting onstage as they appear onscreen. He would be a whole lot better if we could actually hear what he’s saying, however. Since his most recent screen appearance as a bald L.A. ghetto cop in End of Watch, he’s grown a head full of what looks like dirty orange mattress ticking and knocked himself out perfecting a cockney accent, which he spits and mumbles incoherently through a scruffy beard like a face on a box of Smith Brothers cough drops. Of course, this might be a blessing in disguise. The play is so stupendously abysmal it doesn’t make any sense anyway.

The first thing you see upon entering the Laura Pels Theatre is the water. In the last performance I saw on that stage—a grim revival of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger—they covered the proscenium with rotting food and garbage. This time they drown it in water. The rain comes down in buckets from the ceiling and splashes into a water tank the width of the stage, into which the four-member cast tosses props, furniture, used appliances and old shoes. If you are foolish enough to pay real money to suffer through 95 minutes of this stuff without intermission, do not sit in the first row without an umbrella. The water tank acts as a moat-like protection that separates the audience from the squalid flat of an ecology professor named George (played by the always-excellent Brían F. O’Byrne, of Doubt), his wife Fiona (Michelle Gomez) and their obese daughter Anna (Annie Funke). While George spouts academic babble from the new book he’s writing about the survival of mankind in an age of global disaster called How Green Are Your Tomatoes? and Annie sulks about reliving the abuse she gets at school from bullying classmates, the gloom is relieved temporarily by George’s brother Terry (Mr. Gyllenhaal), whose welcome presence offers hope that the play might be heading somewhere—that is, until he speaks. Then what comes out is a torrent of four-letter words that makes David Mamet seem like a model of grace, finesse and literary sophistication.

It is never clear what Terry does or where he’s been. He’s been abroad. Postcards have been received. Now he’s popped in for a visit, covered with tattoos and driving everyone nuts in a Faulknerian stream of jabberwocky punctuated with more F-words than any attempt to quote dialogue will allow. Clutching his overstretched, misshapen T-shirt, shifting on his feet and dancing around like a whirling dervish, he smokes a joint, climbs on top of the fridge for no reason and scratches himself in every body crevice. It’s a wild, exhausting performance that for all of its judo is not always convincing. Encouraged by the kind of loopy direction (by Michael Longhurst) that can only be described as spastic, Mr. Gyllenhaal’s fearless vitality is admirable, but he so completely throws himself into a repulsive character that it overwhelms him. The father rants on ad infinitum about polar ice caps, evolution and global warming. Fat Anna strips off her clothes (not a pretty sight), climbs into an overflowing bathtub, slashes her wrists and floods what’s left of the set in a tidal wave. Mr. Gyllenhall takes over the kitchen and tries his hand at making pastry. The direction is simplicity itself. Every scene ends by knocking another piece of the set into the water. Eventually the cast sloshes through the debris with water above their ankles and takes their curtain calls sopping wet.

The writer of this ludicrous trash is Nick Payne, a critical Flavor of the Avant-Garde Moment in London, praised by the London press for thumbing his nose at tradition as a rule-breaking revolutionary Turk, who encourages healthy wrath from theatergoers who still care about the kind of coherent, well-written plays Britain is famous for. If he has any talent beyond inciting protest, it is not the ability to hold an audience’s attention beyond a central conceit. One can only wonder why Roundabout chose to plague the undeserving New York audience with so much obtuse and juvenile irrelevance, or why, indeed, a movie star of Jake Gyllenhaal’s stature and popularity would choose to appear in it. He’s powerful enough to raise the backing for any play he chooses, and financially independent enough to wait until the right one comes along. What on earth, I kept asking myself, could have attracted him to this rubbish? Then I knew. During the final third of If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, he disappears from the watery stage and doesn’t appear again until the water washes it away. Some actors have all the luck.

rreed@observer.com