NEW YORK -- No one could accuse Jake Gyllenhaal of taking the easy road in his American stage debut.
In Nick Payne's If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet ( * *
out of four), the film star plays Terry, one of two brothers whose
lives have taken different paths. Terry's elder sibling, George --
played by the superb Brian F. O'Byrne -- is a professor and obsessive
environmentalist who lives with his wife and teenage daughter in an
unspecified U.K town.
Where George's crisp
diction and smooth manner identify him as an educated, if not
necessarily high-born, Brit, Terry's cockney accent and socially awkward
behavior establish that he has failed to rise above whatever challenges
life has thrown his way. When Terry pops up, unannounced, at George's
home one dayafter a period of estrangement, we know immediately that he
has nowhere else to go.
Yet Terry is hardly the only desperate soul in If There Is,
which opened off-Broadway Thursday at the Roundabout Theatre Company's
Laura Pels Theatre. Payne's subjects are the twin problems of
communication and action; and it turns out that George, for all his
higher learning and lofty goals, is as inefficient at both as his
The playwright's means of
relaying this, unfortunately, poses an insurmountable challenge to the
excellent actors here, who also include Michelle Gomez as Fiona,
George's harried, exhausted wife, and Annie Funke as Anna, their
overweight, lonely 15-year-old, who develops a close and ultimately
disturbing attachment to her long-lost uncle.
nothing blatantly inappropriate happens between Terry and Anna, it's at
least in part because of the lack of follow-through that defines the
play. Payne's characters are like Hamlets who can't express themselves.
Ellipses are used in the text to indicate "a desire to speak but an
inability to know quite what to say." The combination of passivity and
mannered inarticulateness can prove as frustrating for the audience as
it presumably does for the characters, who sometimes knock over chairs
In the most unsettling scene, Anna,
having reached the limits of her pain and isolation, does act
decisively; as her anguish intensifies, water floods the stage, leaving
the players to splash around Beowulf Boritt's spare set for the
remainder of the performance. But it's a false climax; her parents are
shaken but soon return to ambling as before, only now with wet feet.
Michael Longhurst nonetheless manages to cull nuanced performances from
his cast, notably O'Byrne and Gomez, who have some touching and funny
moments tracing a marriage troubled by everything from Anna's issues to
George's preoccupation with his carbon footprint.
who won acclaim on the London stage before becoming a marquee name,
brings authenticity and generosity to his role in this ensemble work.
His tortured but fundamentally decent Terry has an easy, endearing
rapport with Funke's pitiable but plucky Anna.
Let's hope that he'll return to the theater -- and with better material next time.