Zach Braff's All New People at the Arsht Center Is Full of Quirky Characters

At 37, actor Zach Braff can identify with the Millennials. But as a creative type, his persona is pure Generation X: neurotic, psychically wounded, emotionally adrift, numb to the malaise of adulthood. That said, he's not averse to wacky meet-cutes, nimble verbal patter, and puns so bad they're good, often positioning himself as a brooding misanthrope trapped in broad 21st-century comedies.

Braff, the writer and star of Garden State — one of those movies that seems profound when you're in college and looks awfully puerile later in life — emerged from recent obscurity in 2011 to deliver his debut play, All New People, off Broadway. Less than two years later, Miami's Zoetic Stage is producing the Southeastern regional premiere. Like Garden State, it centers on a sensitive, melancholy intellectual suffering from an affliction whose cure, apparently, is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG), among other surprise guests.

All New People is set in "a high-end Long Beach Island beach house" in "the dead of winter." Michael McKeever's set design suggests IKEA budget-chic more than beachside luxury, but it's a handsome interior nonetheless, with faux stone walls and fireplace, a faux marble bar, mood-setting abstract canvases on the walls, and, behind the sofa, a hilariously ugly piece of African cloth-and-bead art that resembles an outsize abacus.

As the play opens, Charlie (Nicholas Richberg) is standing on the bar of this polished abode. A homemade orange noose dangles from the ceiling and hangs slack around his neck. A Riverdance jig absurdly blares from the stereo system while he finishes what he assumes will be his last cigarette. He's careful not to drop any ashes on the counter — a wordless bit of ironic humor and one of many nice touches from director Stuart Meltzer.

Charlie's suicide is interrupted by Emma (Amy McKenna), a British real estate agent hoping to rent the house. She lets herself in, looking aghast at the stranger about to strangle himself. It turns out the home isn't Charlie's; it's owned by a rich friend who lets him crash there. Long story short, Emma shows up to display the home to a pair of elderly clients who, like Godot, never show up but whose impending arrival keeps these mismatched characters together.

Emma is a mess too, but unlike the grouchy and taciturn Charlie, she's a happy, chatty, and spontaneous mess with a predilection for pot, booze, and pills. Nothing that Charlie tells her — such as "I've killed six people, and that's why I'm killing myself" — deters her, and soon McKenna dominates the room with the best performance of the show. Her MPDG archetype is a master class in believable quirk, reaching the top but never going over, and generating excellent comic timing as she tries, rubbery-faced and spindly-legged, to stop talking to Charlie. Richberg is good here too, in the show's straightest and most subtle performance, but by the time McKenna's motor mouth takes over, you almost forget he's there.

It isn't long before other uninvited guests, like crass angels in the snowy night, materialize to prolong Charlie's plans — first in the form of Myron (Todd Allen Durkin), a chauvinistic fireman and a friend of Emma's, and then Kim (Betsy Graver), a perky, brainless "escort" hired by the homeowner as a present for Charlie on what we learn is his 35th birthday.

The busier the stage becomes, the more Braff's writing reveals its limitations. Braff cut his teeth on TV's Scrubs, and his dialogue begins to resemble sitcom artifice a bit too often. As the four characters politely trade one-liners, the play takes on an arch quality, where the laugh lines feel inserted rather than organic. The opening-night crowd occasionally sounded like a TV show's live studio audience, guffawing at moments that weren't even particularly funny.

One love-it-or-hate-it aspect of the show — I hated it — is the integration of four short black-and-white movie clips projected onto a flat-screen TV set mounted to the wall of the set. Professionally shot and edited beforehand, featuring the actors from the show along with others in the South Florida community, these flashbacks are supposed to buttress the characters' backstories, but they only interrupt the flow of the play (and it didn't help that in the production I saw, the audio and video were out of sync for the first couple of videos, adding to the distraction).

That said, the cast does an excellent job of selling its characters, even when the quality of the material is less than stellar. Fresh off the critical kudos and multiple personalities of GableStage's Venus in Fur, Graver makes her endearingly simple trollop a walk in the park. But she's a gifted comedian, hitting the play's funniest lines out of that same park. Durkin gradually adds layers of enlightenment to his seemingly one-dimensional pig, so that when he blows up in Emma's face, recites Shakespeare like he's auditioning at the Globe, and retreats to the kitchen like a whipped dog over a bit of unrequited love, they feel like comfortable advancements in Myron's natural evolution, rather than forced transitions.

In fact, something happens two-thirds of the way through All New People: The characters' actions feel less like the static, joke-a-minute formulas of Chuck Lorre sitcoms and more like the sophisticated single-camera stuff, where uncomfortable emotional exorcisms are intrinsically linked to the humor. It isn't until the other characters shed their quirky sheens and become real people, with problematic baggage, that Charlie unloads his own and finally comes to terms with his suicidal ideation.

I'm surprised Braff had this kind of poignancy in him, and for all I know, he doesn't: He just might have been blessed with a superlative production that has enriched his work to greater heights.

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John Thomason

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