The relationship between Terry, a hoodie-wearing slacker played by Jake Gyllenhaal in his New York stage debut, and Anna, his pudgy 15-year-old niece, may be the tenderest on any New York stage right now. Given that Terry has no compunction about prodding Anna (Annie Funke) and telling her she’s fat, this may seem a nonsensical assessment, yet it is the gift of playwright Nick Payne, in If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, at the Roundabout’s off-Broadway space, to make us understand why Anna finds Terry so attractive: he pays her genuine attention.
Anna’s parents are less effective. Her mother, Fiona (Michelle Gomez), teaches at her school, and Anna finds her devotion noisome. Her father, George, given a sad, preoccupied air by the superb Brian F. O’Byrne, is too caught up in his studies of climate change to notice his daughter. When he finally makes the effort – a scene in an Indian restaurant that is the play’s most sharply rendered – the results immediately wither.
Well received at its premiere three years ago at London’s Bush, the play as a whole strikes me as slightly too obvious. The thematic override – how can humanity hope to solve the planet’s problems when we cannot solve those within our families? – is apparent from the outset, and doesn’t much deepen over the course of this comedy-drama’s 92 minutes. Payne’s dilemma resembles that of Pascal in the 17th century. Humankind, observed the French philosopher, is perpetually caught between the infinitely large and the infinitely small: while contemplating the stars we neglect our spouses.
The production, directed by Michael Longhurst with a set by Beowulf Boritt, underscores the environmental point in dramatic fashion. Furniture is heaped centre-stage and, once used, is discarded into a soggy moat separating actors from audience. Such a strategy succeeds in making us contemplate George’s point about melting ice caps flooding the world’s coastlines, but after a while I found myself considering more mundane concerns: how long does it take the crew to mop up the stage every night?
I experienced less distraction when Jake Gyllenhaal was onstage. Sporting a credible British accent and a complete mastery of Terry’s staccato speech, Gyllenhaal avoids making the character a generic lovable loser. His combination of humour and sorrow, cruelty and kindness, is priceless.