You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take New Jersey out of Zach Braff. Some tried. He made his mark out of state, on network TV, putting in nine seasons as the daydreaming-doc narrator of "Scrubs," Dr. John "J.D." Dorian — but the first thing he did to cash in on this celebrity was to write, direct and star in "Garden State," a feature shot in 25 days in the spring of 2003 in his South Orange backyard.
Eight years later — after a number of profitable, high-profile interruptions — he has come home again (figuratively, at least) for his first produced play, All New People. It's playing a world-premiere engagement at Off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre in the same end-of-season slot he occupied last year as an actor in Paul Weitz's kinky comedy, Trust.
"All New People takes place in the dead of winter on Long Beach Island, a summer vacation spot in New Jersey," he illuminates. "In order to rent for the summer, you go down in the winter and look at houses, but when you go down, it's just this giant, snow-covered ghost town — a beach community, and nobody's there."
Braff knows this for a fact, having made the trek a few years ago to get his dad a beach house as a birthday present for family gatherings over the summer. "It was so spooky and desolate — the perfect setting for something. That was the impetus. Then I put in this place lots of things that were swirling about [that] I wanted to write about." Despite (or, perhaps, because of) the bleakness of the setting, it is a comedy, focusing on a quartet of thirtysomething strangers who come together and share 90 minutes of real time in an out-of-season beach house in this isolated island hamlet.
So far, when Braff comes home, he has come, if not as a stranger, as a depressed prodigal — here, a suicidal air-traffic controller seeking solitude from the hurly-burly real world. In "Garden State," which was more of a coming-awake comedy than a coming-of-age one, he was an overmedicated actor returning for his mom's funeral.
In both instances, he encounters characters who bring him to life-as-we-know-it. The beach housemates in the play include a rent chick dispatched to him by a friend hoping to pull him out of the doldrums, a homey fireman on duty to protect the town during the off-season and an eccentric Brit realtor desperately seeking a green card.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Braff toyed with the obvious idea of doing the lead role in the play himself, then backed off and entrusted it to Justin Bartha, who scored a standout Broadway debut last season in Lend Me a Tenor. The rest of the roles are dispatched by Anna Camp, Krysten Ritter and David Wilson Barnes.
"I just want to focus on being the writer," Braff explains, "really listening to the play and sitting there in the audience and watching it unfold. I think, in order for me to do the best writing job that I possibly can, I need to just focus on the words."
As a playwright he injected a few cinematic touches, like pre-shot film flashbacks with actors who are just on film and not on stage: Denis O'Hare and Tony Goldwyn.
Peter DuBois, who guided Braff through Trust, was his obvious choice to direct All New People. "This is the first time I've written something that I'm not going to direct, so I wanted someone whose sensibilities overlapped with mine," says Braff.
He also hit it off well with Carole Rothman, Second Stage's artistic director — so well she pretty much got first call on All New People. "What happened was, I had been writing this play before, during and after Trust, and I really liked Carole and her taste. When I thought the play was good enough to at least show to people, I showed it to Carole, and she and Chris Burney, her right-hand man, really responded to it. It just felt like a no-brainer since I feel like Second Stage is a home for me."
You'd not suspect it from "Scrubs," but Braff comes from Shakespearean roots. George C. Wolfe gave him his first stage work - in Macbeth and Twelfth Night — and Braff, in turn, hired Wolfe for his first film, to play the restaurant manager in Garden State who flies off the handle and fires him.
Braff's new flick, "The High Cost of Living," is proof he got out of New Jersey and even into Canada, checking his comic skills at the border to play a hit-and-run drug-dealer befriending his pregnant victim. "I'm a one-man promotion machine for that little movie because I'm drawn to great writing. I don't care if it's a tiny indie in Montreal for no money or an Off-Broadway show at a non-profit theatre or a big huge studio movie. As long as it's something I can relate to and feel I'd be moved by it — that it would entertain me, whether it's a comedy or a drama — I say to myself when I read something, 'Would I want to see this movie?' And that's where I go."
And for his next play? It's not the breakthrough (rather "break-free") we were hoping for: "What I'm writing now takes place in both New Jersey and Manhattan." Well, it's progress.