Like anyone who saw the movie Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and subsequently felt owed a few hours by Jake Gyllenhaal, I approached seeing his American stage debut in the off-Broadway play, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, with much anticipation.
This four-person production by Nick Payne tells the story of a breaking world and a family stuck somewhere within it. It examines the human condition and our reckless behavior toward the planet we live on, and toward the people we live with and the struggle for connection even within family.
The play begins with Anna (Annie Funke) — a quiet and overweight teenage girl — wandering the stage alone as the audience settles into their seats. We soon, seemingly inescapably, find out that Anna is a target for bullies. Her unhappy mother (Enid Graham), is a teacher at her school, and her aloof father (Tony Award-winning, Emmy-nominated Brian F. O’Byrne) is an academic obsessed with climate change. Both seem unable and somewhat unwilling to really know their daughter or help her. When her amiable vagrant uncle (Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives on scene, bringing color and mess to a stale family dynamic, he and Anna relate, and in doing so, inspire the question of who really needs saving in this story. The family struggles, as we all do, to treat each other well. Through comedy and tragedy, at its boldest moment, the play asks the question of whether any of us are worth saving if we are not willing to change.
The production pairs strong acting with creative set design in which the props are stacked in a tall pile at center stage and are pulled off one by one, used and then discarded at the end of each scene. The stage becomes more open as the clutter is lost, and the characters are uncovered in the process. In the show’s climax, the stage itself is flooded with rushing water and the audience’s fear for the characters fate becomes somewhat coupled with a real concern for the actors. Rather quickly, that feeling morphs into disbelief at their not noticing the new danger around them. This dramatic visual of people oblivious to the tide, walking through high water without feeling it, walking through destruction without noticing it all around them, is meant to be powerfully symbolic of the way we live our lives. And like the rest of the play, at some points, that powerful message is received.
The real dialogue and the set hit on poignant and uncomfortable human truths. At other times, however, the audience is battered over the head with the ever-present and overly obvious symbolism of destruction. Thick British accents keep vital words from the audience, and made me personally struggle to understand the course of each conversation. With all this detachment and uncertainty amidst dramatic visual, the bold production felt at once like too little and too much, leaving me and I imagine much of the audience, feeling muddled.
Without enough connection to each character — enough for the audience to believe and understand in each of them — their pain can’t be empathized with in the way that this small and large scale human tragedy demands. In the way that this story should and could have inspired, it leaves the audience numb. The production is certainly supposed to be as beautifully fragmented and incomplete as the title of the play itself — If there is — hope, happiness, a way to be together — I haven’t found it yet — but mostly I felt as lost as the characters within it, grappling in the dark for an understanding of what was happening and with the same inability to feel it all fully.