TAMPA — If you're familiar with the nooks and crannies of Zach Braff's entertainment muffin, his play All New People should feel pretty spot on.
There's the Zach Braff from Scrubs, whose character regularly daydreamed his way into absurd scenarios: waking up missing kidneys in an ice bath, pro wrestling in a singlet, watching everyone around him break into Kung Fu fights or West Side Story dance battles.
Then there's the Zach Braff who makes things like the movie Garden State, a navel gazer about an aimless twentysomething who comes home after his mother dies, then spends lots of time screaming into canyons and wistfully dissecting what it means to be happy.
As for All New People, it feels like Braff put both of those sensibilities into a cocktail shaker and poured them out all over the stage. The play, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2011, was a cool, fresh choice for Jobsite Theater, the resident theater company at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. It's not a perfect piece, but director Paul Potenza and the cast deftly handle the valleys of the script.
The play opens on Charlie, a despondent 35-year-old who is about to hang himself with an electrical cord inside a luxury rental house on Long Beach Island, New Jersey. At the crucial moment, a wacky British real estate agent named Emma (Meg Heimstead) bursts in the door, hoping to show the house to some prospective renters.
Heimstead plays Emma with relentless energy and dynamic comic levels, elegantly uttering lines like, "I suck at being human. Desperation has made me evil, so I apologize." It's fun to watch her alarmed reactions when Charlie (Chris Holcom) delivers some scary news about his situation. Emma decides she was cosmically sent to save Charlie.
Soon, we meet the rest of the cast, who show up staggered to systematically execute the play's mission of proving people can crawl out of despair with the help of other humans.
There's Myron (Jack Holloway) a firefighter and the island's drug dealer. There's Kim (Katie Castonguay), a dense escort sent to Charlie as a present. They're all self-medicated train wrecks, putting Charlie and his problems into a sobering first-world context.
All the characters have back stories, of course, and we learn about them in the form of short films displayed on the beach rental's curtains. The films are well-acted with polished production values, but they feel jarring and not completely necessary. We could have learned more about the characters with some subtle dialogue.
Nonetheless, All New People moves fast, full of rimshot jokes that harken to Braff's slick sitcom pedigree. It's packed with pop culture references, from Home Alone to Fantasy Island to Gremlins to Usher. Holloway as Myron is particularly funny, with a wry Seth Rogen quality in the way he delivers lines.
Just when you think All New People is going to be one long drug and sex joke (albeit a pretty sharp one), things start to get real. This is where Garden State Braff starts to take over, with the script giving the characters some more complicated emotional scars and opportunities to stare middle-distance into the crowd and explore the onerous trials of living.
The tone change feels kind of abrupt, but it's also a welcome slice of meat after the jokes have run their course. Holcom takes Charlie from something kind of shouty and dead-eyed into something more layered and woeful. The growth feels satisfying.
Jobsite is ultimately able to get the moral across: We're all barely operating on the fringes of normalcy, and life sometimes sticks it to us. Yet perhaps we can work together to help each other make it out alive.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.