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Tristine Skyler

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Why Zach Braff's All New People Is the Defining Play of a Generation

Posted: 07/26/11 11:39 AM ET

"Maybe we just want too much," one of the characters says in Zach Braff's riveting real‐time comedy/drama All New People. " We want the million dollars and the kid robot. But isn't the million dollars enough? I mean, we have our lives, isn't that enough?" Apparently not, especially in light of this week's most recent tragic loss of yet another gifted artist, Amy Winehouse. Apparently, as human beings, we want a lot more. Having our life is just the beginning, and that's where the real pain begins.

What is so important about Mr. Braff's new play, now running at off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre in New York City, is that wrapped inside a 90-minute intermission-less piece -- that is so side-splittingly funny line after line that one almost thinks his brain should be donated to science -- is that it questions the very essence of what it is to be human. What is it that we want here? And how do those things we want contribute to our downfall?

An unperceptive, or unwilling-to-deal-with-these-types-of-questions audience member might turn away too quickly from this play. Some have talked about the character of a blonde call girl as a stock character, and shouldn't his writing be above the use of one? Well, what those very people are missing is exactly what the play's about. This character -- played brilliantly by Anna Camp -- is a 15,000 dollar a night call girl precisely because people use them. And that's the point -- once again the play effortlessly circling back to our human compulsions and desires, our frailties, and wondering if it is the unfortunate human condition to be subject to them.

The lead character (in a pitch-perfect performance by Justin Bartha) is in a rented, deserted beach house in Long Beach Island, New Jersey, in the off-season to 'off' himself. He is done -- finished with the struggles, finished with the regrets. Unbeknownst to him, he is about to be descended upon by a gang of misfits even worse off than he is, but yet have all seemed to have found, tentatively but still, something resembling coping mechanisms. Krysten Ritter is a real estate agent from the UK, desperately hoping for a green card, and David Wilson Barnes is an island firefighter/drug dealer who's been fired from his previous job as a high school drama teacher in a sex scandal. Both performances are also brilliant. The whole cast is uniformly expert, under the stunning, unparalleled direction of Peter DuBois.

What the play gets at cuts to the very heart of who we are. We all struggle. We all have pain. We all do whatever we can to escape that pain, and like tragic Amy Winehouse, also lose our lives while trying. I think the reason this play moves me so much (despite that it made me laugh harder than anything I have seen in light years) is because it holds a mirror right up to ourselves. That may piss a lot of people off, or make them uncomfortable. For me, it made me think -- deeply and continuously -- in the weeks since I've seen it. And that is the very reason I go to the theatre in the first place.

Do I value my life? Do I want the million dollars and the kid robot? Do any of us really have a clue what this journey is about while we are here making messes of so much of it? In writing this play, Mr. Braff asks the most provocative questions of our generation, and to me, has become the writer who will define my own self‐reflection for a long time to come.