Gyllenhaal Sizzles in Stormy ‘If There Is’: Jeremy Gerard

It’s raining buckets onstage in Nick Payne’s “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet.”

No amount of slosh can dampen Jake Gyllenhaal’s U.S. stage debut as a foul-mouth prodigal who wreaks havoc on his brother’s troubled home. It’s a free-wheeling performance of high comic energy and rude bombast unmatched since Mark Rylance masticated the scenery in another British import, “Jerusalem.”

Like that play, “If There Is” has a ramshackle plot and a lot on its mind, the disparate elements of which float maddeningly in and out of view over the course of one long act.

Gyllenhaal plays Terry, the smart but lethally unfocused boy-man (he’s not yet 30) who arrives unannounced at the suburban British home of his older brother George, an environmental activist; Fiona, George’s neglected schoolteacher wife, and Anna, their fat 15-year-old daughter, a bully target with an understandably morose disposition.

When he arrives, Anna (Annie Funke, fearless and arresting) has just been suspended from school for head-butting one of her tormentors. Meeting her in the kitchen after a long absence, the uncle launches into the tale of a recent sexual encounter, followed by a heartfelt if somewhat poorly timed peroration on the comparative desirability of “fat birds” (pro) versus “skinny birds” (con).

Any Day

Any day now, Terry assures her, Anna will wake up and realize she’s beautiful. She’s not buying it, but a complicated, tenuous bond between them grows as her parents (Brian F. O’Byrne and Michelle Gomez, both very fine) -- entertainingly, if less persuasively, drawn -- spin further out in their own orbits.

The play’s two constants are the sense of danger Terry adds to the family mix, and the theme of destruction that weaves parlously between the family and George’s doomsday prophesizing. They’re embodied by Beowulf Boritt’s drenching set, which begins as a pile of furniture at center stage.

The characters take out chunks of it -- a desk, a bed, a couch -- for a given scene before tossing, kicking or otherwise launching it into the trough of water that extends across the stage lip. (You really don’t want to be sitting in the first few rows). These people wreck everything in sight.

The statement seems to be that our emotional imprint is as fraught and damning as our carbon footprint. “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet” ends with a soggy coup-de-theatre that drives this point home.

Like Anna, I’m not necessarily buying it. Getting there, on the other hand, has been one long strange trip.

Through Nov. 25 at the Roundabout/Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St. Information: +1-212-719-1300; http://www.roundabouttheatre.org/Shows-Events/If-There-Is.aspx. Rating: ***1/2


What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Very Good
**     Good
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include New York Weekend and Lewis Lapham on books.

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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