NEW YORK — What if you're drowning in misery and nobody seems to care? The despair of being bullied is one theme of Nick Payne's clever, edgy domestic drama, "If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet," about a British family that knows it's falling apart but can't seem to take action to stop it.
Payne's other concern is whether people can care enough about global climate change to actually change their ways and work to prevent it. He deftly interweaves these concepts as his characters ricochet from humor to heartbreak, in the engaging, layered and thoughtfully-observed production that opened Thursday night off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre.
Without leaking too many details, wonderfully unexpected things happen with water and props in director Michael Longhurst's exciting, inventive staging. A delicate waterfall and a pool provide dramatic metaphors for the overwhelming unhappiness building within the central character, an overweight and bullied teenage girl named Anna whose family seems remarkably unable to figure out how to help her.
Payne writes dialogue the way real people talk, often in awkward fragments, with sentences left dangling and important words unsaid. Anna's academic father George stammers and repeats himself, while George's uneducated brother Terry barks staccato sentences laden with curses. The f-word is hurled more than 150 times, but after a while, you won't even notice it.
Annie Funke is vulnerable and appealing as 15-year-old Anna, who can't believe she gets suspended from school for lashing back at her tormentors. Funke stomps around in perfect imitation of an angry teenage girl, sensitively calibrating her performance between moods of infatuation, disappointment, eager hope and sullen anguish.
Brian F. O'Byrne gives an aloof, slightly goofy air to George, an environmental scientist obsessed with global warming. He's preoccupied with writing a book that he hopes will change the world, about the carbon emissions attached to everyday objects. But knowing that a single latte a day is attached to as much CO2 as a "60-mile drive in the average car" could potentially render people as inert as Anna's helpless parents.
Anna's uncle Terry is played with zeal by Jake Gyllenhaal, extremely effective in his New York stage debut. George's charming but aimless younger brother bursts in on the family after a few years away. Gyllenhaal crackles with self-loathing and anger, as Terry hopes to mend a romance he destroyed. Terry takes a kindly interest in Anna and their friendship blossoms, but then he gets bogged down in typical poor decision-making, leaving Anna more despondent than before.
Michelle Gomez plays Anna's mother, Fiona, as sensible but a bit remote. Preoccupied with running the school musical, she's tried to stop the bullying by moving Anna to the school where she teaches, but that only makes things worse.
The combined inability of these three adults to understand and act upon the depth of Anna's growing misery sparks a cataclysmic situation, much like CO2 piling up in our atmosphere.
Kudos to Beowulf Boritt for set design, and to the whole production crew for creating major watery magic. Whether this family can pull themselves out of their troubled waters is another matter, but they're worth rooting for in this complex, compelling drama.