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Jake Gyllenhaal Finds Himself Off-Broadway: 'If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet'

10/01/2012 05:41 pm ET | Updated Dec 01, 2012

Teenage bullying and global warming have both received a great deal of attention in the media lately, but one wonders if they have ever been combined into one story. Bringing the two together in one play is even more unusual, but that is exactly what is done in If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet, the well-meaning but heavy-handed play by Nick Payne, currently playing at the Laura Pels Theater. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal in an impressive New York stage debut, Payne's story of a dysfunctional family is moving but a bit over-saturated -- in more ways than one.

Anna (Annie Funke, outstanding) is an overweight teenage girl bullied at her school because of her weight and her mother's place on the administration. Her mother Fiona (Michelle Gomez) is overworked and overtired, and unable to give her daughter the attention she needs. Her father, George (Brian F. O'Byrne) is obsessed with climate change and writing a book on how to save the earth and unable to pay his wife or daughter any attention.

It is clear this family is sinking, but not until George's wandering, ne'er do well brother Terry (Gyllenhaal) appears for an unexpected visit that they realize just how deep of a mess they are in. Sporting an authentic working class British accent, Gyllenhaal gives Terry a charmingly well-meaning, slightly bewildered manner that juxtaposes George's buttoned-up professor personality in a very entertaining way. On paper it would be difficult to believe these two are related but this duo of talented actors give them an authentic connection. (As George expounds on his book and how he hopes it will change the world, Terry interrupts with the question, "What's the carbon footprint of a joint?" George does not laugh.)

After Anna is suspended from school for fighting with a student, Terry becomes her de facto guardian for a few weeks and actually pays some attention to the lonely teenager. While the relationship between the two hedges on awkwardly sexual at times, it is also sincere and Terry clearly cares about Anna in his own confused way. Sadly, the relationship between George and Fiona is not nearly as simple. As Fiona, Gomez depicts the weary resignation of an exhausted working wife and mother almost too well; her performance borders on frighteningly authentic. O'Byrne has much less to work with as George, as the character seems to be more a collection of stereotypes about absent-minded professors. But he gives the performance every dimension it can be given, especially in the scenes between himself and Gomez.

Much of Payne's script is written in either sentence fragments or swear words -- in other words, the kind of modern dialogue one hears on the subway or in the streets. It is what is not said between the characters that shows what is actually happening in their home. Even Anna has already learned to be silent and sad and as her sadness increases, so does her self-destruction. Funke is excellent as Anna, giving a realistic and honest portrayal of a suffering teenager. Funke is not afraid to depict the uncomfortable and there were a few moments that I had to look away from the stage because I was so upset by what was happening on it.

The staging of If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet offers a unique visualization of the show's message. A curtain of water falls in front of the set into a river or moat that surrounds the stage. All of the props are assembled in a pile, center stage, which the actors select for their scene and then toss into the river after the scene has ended. Following one particularly disturbing scene, water floods the stage, rising up to the actor's ankles and forcing them to slosh through the last few scenes of the play. While there are several interpretations of the water's symbolism -- not only could it represent global warming but also the way this family is drowning in their sorrows or even the cleansing effects of water symbolizing a rebirth of this fragmented family -- one has to question if it was actually necessary or if the play could have stood on its own. (In its original production in London, the water was not used.)

Even though some meanings of the play were not quite clear -- the title, for example -- it is a poignant and powerful show with an especially strong cast. One hopes to see all of them, including Gyllenhaal, in more stage productions soon.