We all live in at least two parallel universes, one personal and the other global. Or at least we do in "If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet" -- Nick Payne's apocalyptic British domestic drama that, among other notable things, introduces Jake Gyllenhaal to the New York stage.
Gyllenhaal, currently also on-screen as an L.A. cop in "End of Watch," makes an admirable, low-key debut here as part of a four-character ensemble in which the people and story intentionally compete with the set. He plays Terry, the scruffy, sensitive but dangerously impetuous drifter who arrives unannounced to his obsessed, environmentalist brother's home and befriends his bullied, overweight teenage niece.
But first, there's that set by Beowulf Boritt -- a big, stage-wide tank of water into which rain pours as we enter the theater, and pieces of furniture are carelessly tossed when people no longer need them for a scene. As the brother (the always terrific Brian F. O'Byrne) makes desperately clear in academic lectures, the Earth is melting as we are distracted by everyday life.
The "it" in the title, I think, is balance -- the inability of these characters to find equilibrium between caring about the future of the world and caring about their loved ones. Alas, Payne, one of Britain's rising young playwrights, never manages to find that balance, either.
So basically, this is a message with a play tacked on. The message -- that we are obliviously up to our doomed ankles in our carbon footprints -- is made powerfully apparent. It's the people we don't always believe.
This is especially true of George (O'Byrne) and Fiona (Michelle Gomez), the loving but incredibly obtuse (and skinny) parents of tortured Anna -- played with gutsy, layered subtlety by Annie Funke. As staged by Michael Longhurst, George is far too befuddled by the emotional world to be trusted to save the physical world. And Fiona, supposedly a caring teacher, never seems really to notice her daughter's anguish.
In contrast, Gyllenhaal's socially inappropriate Terry -- with his fuzzy beard, sweet smile and filthy T-shirt -- shows both a serious lack of impulse control and deep empathy. The actor makes us want things to be softer for the guy and Payne, to his credit, refuses to indulge us. As for the carbon footprint of the theater's motorized water tank, well, George would not approve.
WHAT "If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet"
WHERE Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St.
INFO $100; 212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Admirable Gyllenhaal, interesting but unbalanced play