Soulful and sometimes-gruff actor Jake Gyllenhaal makes his New York stage debut today in Nick Payne’s “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet,” playing a heartbroken uncle who forms an unexpected bond with his overweight 15-year-old niece.
The Off-Broadway ensemble piece, co-starring Tony-winner Brian O’Byrne (“Frozen”), is at the Roundabout Theatre Company's Laura Pels Theatre, with an official opening slated for Sept. 20.
The play marks a return to live theater for the Oscar-nominated Gyllenhaal (“Brokeback Mountain”), who co-starred with Anna Paquin and Hayden Christensen a decade ago in a London production of Kenneth Lonergan’s “This Is Our Youth,” then detoured into critically acclaimed films such as “Brokeback” and “Zodiac,” along with popcorny hokum such as “The Day After Tomorrow.”
Gyllenhaal, 31, was brought up in Los Angeles, but made regular jaunts to New York to visit family, adventures that included visits to Broadway. He spoke to The New York Times about some of his early theater-going experiences, among them one trip to see Patti LuPone in “Anything Goes” at Lincoln Center, during which he fell asleep. His interest was more stirred by dramas such as “Angels in America” and, later on, the Chekhov plays older sister Maggie worked on with the Classic Stage Company.
"Around the time I hit 30, I asked myself if I was ... doing the right projects that deserved my attention,” Gyllenhaal told the NYT’s Patrick Healy. “Now, it’s like I look at acting more as building little delicate cricket cages, with care and more thought.”
The Roundabout’s press notes for "If There Is..." describe Payne’s comedy this way: “Fifteen-year-old Anna's (Annie Funke) weight makes her a natural target for bullies. When her mom transfers Anna to the school where she teaches in order to protect her daughter, it only makes things worse. ... Just as Anna gets suspended for retaliating with a head-butt, her estranged Uncle Terry (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives unannounced. A heartbroken drifter with the mouth of a sailor, Terry reaches out to Anna in a way that no one ever has.”
Gyllenhaal’s young co-star spoke of intense rehearsals, which include work on one scene where Uncle Terry gets aggressive with her about weight. Director Michael Longhurst had encouraged Gyllenhaal to physically poke Funke as he derided her about her weight. It eventually reduced Funke to tears.
“I just reached a breaking point because I hadn’t quite realized before, until Jake was poking me, what it felt like to be picked on and bullied and how all of that must make Anna feel,” Funke told the Times. “I was just completely overwhelmed. And Jake grabbed me and hugged me, and we finished the scene. He has looked out for me completely.”
Gyllenhaal says it was his character’s “capacity for cruelty” that drew him to the part. “The intentions of Terry are very different from anything I’ve played before, especially his vicious side,” he said.
Playwright Payne’s earlier “Constellations,” also directed by Michael Longhurst, recently completed a run at London’s Royal Court Theatre. “If There Is...” is a limited engagement scheduled to run through Nov. 25.