Zach Braff is a funny guy, as anyone who watched him play Dr. John “J.D.” Dorian on TV’s Scrubs from 2001 to 2010 could tell you.
He’s also an award-winning director-screenwriter (for 2004’s Garden State), a movie actor (his next is Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great and Powerful, opening in March), a Grammy-winning producer (for the Garden State soundtrack) and a stage actor who has done two plays by William Shakespeare (Macbeth in 1998 and Twelfth Night in 2002, both for New York’s Public Theater).
In 2011, Braff added another line to his long résumé: playwright.
Braff’s smart, edgy comedy All New People debuted Off-Broadway at New York’s Second Stage Theatre in the summer of 2011. In the world premiere, Justin Bartha of The Hangover played Charlie, a depressed guy whose plan to end it all at a wintertime-chilly Jersey Shore beach house gets thwarted by three strangers. Braff played suicidal Charlie when the play was done in London nearly a year ago.
Now All New People is getting another new Charlie, South Florida-based Nicholas Richberg, as Zoetic Stage Company opens the first regional production of Braff’s play on Friday at the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater. Staged by artistic director Stuart Meltzer, the Miami production features a hot acting foursome: Richberg, Todd Allen Durkin (a regular on the STARZ series Magic City) as a firefighter who also happens to be the local drug dealer, Amy McKenna as a British real-estate agent who lacks a Green Card but can’t go home, and Betsy Graver as a pricey escort sent by Charlie’s pal to cheer him up.
Braff, who’s juggling several movie projects and a potential Broadway debut, sounded genuinely excited and humbled during a talk about his play.
“I’m very honored that it’s being done there … Miami got in just as the play became licensable,” Braff said.
Growing up in New Jersey, Braff regularly went to Broadway shows as a kid, thanks to his theater-loving father. One winter not long ago, he was checking out summer beach houses on what he calls New Jersey’s “recently decimated Long Beach Island” for his dad, and he got the idea for All New People.
“It was completely desolate and other-worldly, so snowy and cold,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in isolation and loneliness. I wanted to write about someone at his nadir, as lonely and depressed as a human can be. And how he’s rescued by friendship and the possibility of love.”
Zoetic’s Meltzer heard a buzz from friends when All New People was running in New York and says of the script, “It’s one of the first times I’ve read a script and laughed out loud. It’s very unusual. I love the neuroses of the writing. … It goes from one extreme to the next. It has all these farcical elements, then it takes this turn.”
Among the challenges faced by Meltzer and his creative collaborators is dealing with a piece of art that gets destroyed at each performance, having Charlie seem to hang himself at the beginning of each show, flowing from live action to video and back, and summoning falling snow.
Said Meltzer, laughing some more: “I truly believe you can do anything in theater.”
The actors have challenges of their own. Richberg, who notes the scariness of onstage hanging, has to make Charlie’s dark opening moments look convincing yet funny. McKenna has to pull off a British accent that conveys her character Emma’s middle-class status while coming across as chatty and, eventually, high. Durkin and Graver have to do a scene in which his character, Myron, feels up her character, Kim, as he describes how very happy he feels. The two actors happen to be a just-engaged couple, which makes the scene easier, both said.
“But we need to make sure it’s funny and not gross,” Graver added. “You want to make the characters likeable.”
Having just finished shooting the next season of Magic City, Durkin is happy to be back onstage for the first time since last summer.
“I love theater. It’s an actor’s medium. We control what goes on from Point A to Point Z. I like being able to live the through-line of a character,” he said.
Braff loves theater, too.
“For me, the most moving art you can see is a great theatrical production,” he said.
Still, Braff acknowledged that being live and in the moment can have its hazards. In London, at one performance of All New People, he couldn’t extricate himself from Charlie’s hanging rig.
“I just stopped and said, ‘You paid too much money for this to happen.’ So we dropped the curtain, then we started over,” he said.