Jake Gyllenhaal is one movie star who belongs on stage

When movie or TV stars decide to appear on the New York stage, it’s a high risk proposition.

The eight-times-a-week exposure is flagrant, and if you’re not up to the rigors of stage acting, bad reviews and bad word of mouth can be a prolonged PR disaster.

It is doubtful that anyone who saw Julia Roberts in the 2006 production of “Three Days of Rain,” for instance, carries a vivid memory of what she did in that Richard Greenberg play.

The radiant star of “Pretty Woman” looked like a rank amateur on stage. Theatergoers who fought to get tickets before the play opened were so disappointed by what happened on stage that they could be seen leaving the theater in droves during the intermission.

A decade earlier when Jessica Lange decided — at the height of her film career — to make her stage debut as Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” the performance was strong if you sat in the first 10 rows of the orchestra but inaudible elsewhere (through a fluke, I saw the show twice, and only enjoyed it when I was sitting very close to the stage).

Lange returned to Broadway in another Tennessee Williams classic — “The Glass Menagerie” — and while her vocal projection was considerably improved, the performance was still too small for the space.

Both Lange and Roberts displayed hubris by going directly to the big leagues — Broadway — rather than start in a small off-Broadway house and then work their way up.

Another movie star, Jake Gyllenhaal, is now making a memorable New York stage debut in the Roundabout Theatre’s production of Nick Payne’s “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet” which has just had its limited run extended by two weeks (to Dec. 23) due to the good reviews and strong ticket sales.

Gyllenhaal has only acted on stage once before — ten years ago in a London production — but he looks and sounds like someone who is completely at home there. He has the chops.

The film star was smart to choose an ensemble piece staged in Roundabout’s smallish off-Broadway venue, the Laura Pels Theatre, but there wasn’t a false note in Gyllenhaal’s performance and he meshed perfectly with his co-stars. 

Payne’s play is a four-character domestic drama about a British family dealing with marital infidelity and the daughter’s bullying at school. Stage veteran Brian F. O’Byrne plays the environmentalist dad, George; Michelle Gomez plays his wife Fiona; and the striking young actress Annie Funke is their overweight and angry teen daughter Anna.

Gyllenhaal is George’s younger brother, Terry, who has been aimlessly wandering the globe before the play’s start. Terry’s unexpected return adds stress to the family’s situation but also helps Anna because her uncle is a sympathetic misfit just like her.

It’s a slight play that has been given a bizarre, over-elaborate staging that sometimes dwarfs the story — at one point, the stage is flooded with several inches of water for no clear dramatic purpose, and there is a long pool of water at the foot of the stage into which the characters toss furniture and props at the end of each scene.

But, the human elements in “If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet” remain strong and Gyllenhaal is so appealing and troubling as Terry that I left the theater Thursday night hoping it wouldn’t be another ten years before the actor hit the stage. He belongs there.

Joe Meyers