Water Works

Annie Funke, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Brian F. O’Byrne in Nick Payne’s “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet.” | JOAN MARCUS

Since age 11, Jake Gyllenhaal has been relentless in carving out a film career, taking on a range of bold, peculiar roles in films like “Donnie Darko,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Jarhead,” “Proof,” “Zodiac,” and just out this week, “End of Watch.”

So it’s no surprise, really, that the doe-eyed heartthrob has found scant time for work on the stage (his sole outing was a West End production of “This Is Our Youth” a decade ago).

Finally, the stars have aligned for Jake’s American stage debut, at age 31. But instead of choosing a showy Broadway role, he’s part of a tiny ensemble piece titled “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet,” a rather dark London import now at the Roundabout’s intimate Laura Pels Theatre Off Broadway.

For any doubters out there, I’m happy to report the Hollywood star skillfully holds his own on the boards. He plays yet another outsider, a rootless slacker named Terry who talks a good game but can’t quite get his act together, showing up unannounced at the house of brother George and his beleaguered wife, Fiona. Brokenhearted and emotionally stunted, he tries to connect with Anna, his 15-year-old niece who’s dealing with painful misfit issues of her own.

If the plot is hackneyed and wafer thin, surely the rich characterizations and smart, elliptical dialogue by Nick Payne make up for it. Refreshingly, the play does not use amplification, a challenge for the cast but more naturalistic for the audience.

What’s astonishing about Gyllenhaal’s portrayal is an intense physicality. His Terry is a bundle of nervous energy, alternately combing his hands through his hair, reaching deep into his pockets, hiking up his oversized jeans, tugging on his mustard-colored T-shirt, chewing on his neck chain — all while putting on a jokey front to mask insecurities.

Certainly, Gyllenhaal is a natural for the uncle role — he’s had plenty of practice doting on his sister Maggie’s two daughters. Apparently, the heavy British accent was no sweat because he lived in London for a couple of years. No matter that it’s slightly out of sync with the others.

Beneath his wrinkled, ill-fitting clothes, scraggly beard, and mop of hair, Gyllenhaal still manages to ooze most-eligible-bachelor allure.

Despite an impressive turn, this is hardly the Jake show. Annie Funke, who left “Silence! The Musical” for the Anna role, delivers a quiet, potent portrayal of a dejected, obese teen who’s a prime target for schoolyard bullying. She’s desperate for the adult guidance her parents fail to provide. Sadly, her bumbling uncle needs guidance as much as she does.

Brian F. O’Byrne (“Doubt”) is disquietingly sincere as the father so preoccupied with writing a book on saving the planet from carbon emissions that he has no clue how to save his own family. As the hardened, neglected Fiona, Michelle Gomez effectively conveys the frustrations of a mother who knows her family is broken but is too worn out to fix it.

You could say there’s a fifth character in this family psychodrama, though not human. Director Michael Longhurst has chosen to incorporate water elements onstage (credit for the clever set goes to Beowulf Boritt, who designed “Chaplin” on Broadway), though to reveal more would spoil the impact. Let’s just say that there are not-so-subtle references to the Titanic, including the Celine Dion anthem droning in the background. An apt analogy, since the family is foundering and there’s no lifeboat in sight.

Carrying the theme further, water also figures into George’s screed on global warming. He’s convinced that melting polar ice caps will cause the seas to rise and is appalled no one is taking adequate steps to stop it.

Although many have whined about the water concept, I found that it effectively enlivened an otherwise ordinary story.

As well, the play achieves some exceedingly disturbing moments, including hints of sexual tension that have no place even in the most damaged of families.

By any measure, the engrossing “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet” marks an overdue milestone in Gyllenhaal’s sizzling career. Let’s hope he doesn’t wait another decade before his next turn onstage.

IF THERE IS I HAVEN’T FOUND IT YET | Laura Pels Theatre | Roundabout Theatre Company | 111 W. 46th St. | Through Nov. 25 | Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Wed., Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $100 | roundabouttheatre.org or 212-719-1300

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