Paul Potenza was up late with insomnia the first time he read All New People.
That night, something about the play spoke to him and not just the fact that Scrubs star Zach Braff wrote it. It was funny, but also full of conflict and choices, relationships that felt real. He read it again, and one more time, and decided it was worth directing.
"We live in this world where everything is instant," Potenza said. "Tweet, text, email. And personally what I liked about this play is, things that do get solved, they get solved by hearing and seeing people's personal freak flags fly in front of them, as opposed to seeing them squinted at on the phone. It's 'Talk to me. Learn about me.' "
All New People opens at Jobsite Theater in the Shimberg Playhouse at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on Friday and runs through June 1.
Braff deferred acting in the lead role to Hangover actor Justin Bartha for its Off-Broadway opening in 2011. Braff then took on the role of Charlie in England the following year after he was able to watch the play and refine it.
All New People features four characters contained in the single setting of an upscale beach house in Long Beach Island, New Jersey. It opens on Charlie (Chris Holcom at Jobsite), 35, who is thinking about killing himself. He is interrupted by an eccentric British real estate agent (Meg Heimstead), and later joined by a firefighter (Jack Holloway) and a hired escort (Katie Castonguay).
"I just like really wacky people, but who aren't wacky for wacky's sake," Braff said in a YouTube interview about his characters. "We all know when we see someone in the world, when you go out, that is a genuinely odd person. They're not putting anything on. They're not trying to be wacky. They're just genuinely unique, bizarre and funny. . . . I like people like that, who delicately ride the line of sane and insane."
Potenza believed All New People was a good match for Jobsite, where the play selection process happens pretty democratically. Members of the ensemble at the Straz Center's resident theater company read plays throughout the year, and as the season gets closer, start discussing reasons for personal favorites.
Sometimes, the choices are obvious and tie in with special dates or appearances — for instance, Charles Busch's Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, opening at Jobsite in late October, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
With something like All New People, the choice was a little less clear. With Braff as the writer, it had some star power that was sure to sell a few tickets. But it needed more than that to hold up in the season lineup. Potenza thought the play had it.
"There are these kind of gorgeous comedic lines that are in it, sort of in the way of a Woody Allen play," he said. "He has this didactic kind of sound."
Most people know Braff as Dr. John "J.D." Dorian from Scrubs, an over-the-top, jelly-faced sitcom role. But Braff has had luck fostering a more esoteric, indie side with a healthy fan base. He wrote and directed 2004's Garden State, a movie about going back home that manages to be both somber and uplifting.
Both Braff's humor and heartfelt tendencies run through All New People, Potenza said. Now, it's about keeping the tone in balance.
"It's kind of an angst-fueled comedy," he said. "It has sensibilities in these comedic moments which would seem farcical at times, but I'm trying to keep a lot of truth and heart to the piece."
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.