By Keith Staskiewicz
July 26, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT
Joan Marcus

Dramedy isn’t a real genre; it’s just a term invented by video store clerks to distinguish a film that lands somewhere in the Venn no-man’s-land between mirthless character pieces and brainless yukfests. Still, the best works that alloy laughs with emotions — like those of James L. Brooks or Alexander Payne — tend to do so seamlessly, melding the elements into something singular. With All New People, actor-turned-writer Zach Braff tries his hand at that alchemy but ends up with an unstable compound.

Justin Bartha (The Hangover) plays the hapless, hopeless Charlie, who begins the play with a noose of orange extension cord wrapped around his neck. His suicide attempt is interrupted by Emma, a skittish, over-talkative real estate agent played by Krysten Ritter with an English accent that drifts in and out like London fog. She bursts into the Long Beach Island vacation home Charlie inhabits. Her unexpected arrival is followed by two more: Myron, a local fire chief who deals drugs on the side, and Kim, an airheaded escort sent by Charlie’s friend to cheer him up.

The presence of the latter two characters also cheers up the audience, giving the play a much-needed double espresso shot of comedy. Anna Camp especially is a delight as Kim, taking a well-worn type and making her ditzy blondness seem almost fresh. Braff’s dialogue can be funny, especially once it hits a rhythm and the one-liners become less self-conscious. But every time the laughs start flowing, a character will drop a line so heavy and unwieldy you can almost hear it clunk as it hits the floor. Invariably, the perpetrator is the gloomily sarcastic Charlie. ”Buzzkill,” Kim calls him, and quite aptly. These dramatic moments are like lumps in the oatmeal of comedy: incongruous, unexpected, and not exactly pleasant. Both Charlie and Emma have terrible pasts they are running from, the kind of overdone tragic backstories that theater tends to love. But when the characters finally confront their demons, it feels more dutiful than cathartic.

You really do want to be drawn into the story of these four, especially with the actors working so hard, but the motivations aren’t as believable when they are imposed from the outside, and the emotions aren’t as engaging when they are constantly being discussed in very on-the-nose monologues. Braff’s stage-writing debut certainly has its positives, but all that characterization keeps getting in the way of his characters. B?

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