It’s a common choice. A young actor, known mostly for teen angst movies or shallow blockbusters, decides to take a stab at legitimacy. It can go either way. Recently, Disney Channel alumnus Shia LaBeouf humiliated himself in a series of interviews filled with choice nonsensical quotes like, “You give Terrence Malick a movie like Transformers, and he’s fucked.” On the other hand, Daniel Radcliffe, who actually had a sense of humor about the whole thing, gave a surprisingly effective turn five years ago in a revival of Peter Schaffer’s Equus. The key to this career move is either playing a role that establishes you as an “adult” or at least one that is very serious. Smoking is good. Accents are even better. And theater? Nothing screams seriousness like theater. Jake Gyllenhaal gets all three of these in his stage debut, Nick Payne’s If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, which features him as a bearded pothead with a lower-class English accent and a predilection for arson. He gets to use all sorts of slang, like “mental” and “nutted” and saying “us” when he means “me.” There’s even a little bit of sexual tension with his overweight niece.
But while Mr. Gyllenhaal is likely to be a big draw for If This Is I Haven’t Found It Yet (the girl in front of me was armed with a poster and a Sharpie before it even began), the biggest surprise of the show is that he is more or less forgettable, overshadowed by an excruciating, bloated play that is overlong at ninety minutes.
George (Brían F. O’Byrne) is very concerned about the environment. George has even written a book titled How Green Are Your Tomatoes: The Carbon Footprint of Practically Everything. But Mr. Payne isn’t just assigning character traits willy-nilly. The green bent actually serves as a metaphor for George’s relationship with his family. (Our playwright is quite fond of metaphors.) Choosing to ignore what is happening at home, George instead rants about the ice caps: “What … will it mean for half of the world’s population who live within two hundred kilometers of a coast, if and when the entire Greenland Ice Sheet melts?” Meanwhile, George’s obese daughter Anna (Annie Funke) attempts suicide in a bathtub, the water overflowing and flooding the stage. And the last movie George went to see with his estranged wife, Fiona (Michelle Gomez)? Titanic. Yep. As an English major and amateur theater critic, I have trained myself to spot these metaphors, which might go over the heads of Mr. Payne’s more pedestrian audience members. That is why he includes a closing monologue from George, an introduction to a lecture he is giving on his book, which includes the line, “Are we worth saving if we’re not prepared to change?” Just so we know where he stands, Mr. Payne has George end by reading, “Everything that follows is dedicated in its entirety to my wife and daughter. Chapter One…” The mention of “Chapter One”? Also a metaphor. Of new beginnings.
As for Mr. Gyllenhaal, he plays Terry, the wayward younger brother of George, who invites himself to stay in their house for a little while, giving condoms to Anna and trying to boost her self-confidence with honesty and desperately needed attention. One night, he curls up in bed with her and insists with that unmistakable drunken determination, “Fat birds Anna, are the salt of the fucking earth. And you wanna know why, you wanna know why? Because you don’t get fat by fucking. Taking it easy.” Terry is also in town to look up an ex-girlfriend, Rachel. Last time he saw Rachel, he torched her current boyfriend’s car. Metaphor? You bet. This is Fiona to Terry: “You set fire to everything you touch.”
You get the point. Or at least I hope you do, since I’ve been wailing on this dead horse for several paragraphs. If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet plays like it was written with one hand on the keyboard, the other propping up a how-to book on playwrighting, complete with an appendix of key terms. Amid all this suffocating dialogue, there is actually one gem, which in all fairness I must mention. Terry, explaining sex to Anna, says it’s “all much of a much-ness,” much more eloquent than her father’s fumbling description, “that most mystical of behaviors.” Still, the play is likely to inspire the obvious joke and the one it deserves: whatever it is, Mr. Payne most definitely has not found it yet.