Clutter – physical, emotional – is the subject of Theresa Rebeck’s new Broadway play I Need That, a comedy-drama that star Danny DeVito works mightily and with increasing futility to stuff with laughs and meaning.
Co-starring DeVito’s daughter Lucy DeVito and Ray Anthony Thomas, I Need That (as in, Hey, Don’t Throw That Away) takes a thin premise – a hoarder (Danny DeVito) lives amidst a house-full of life’s detritus in an unwinnable attempt to hold onto the past – and crams it with repetition, filler and character developments that are either predictable or unconvincing.
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel – who directed Rebeck’s much better Bernhardt/Hamlet in 2018 – the Roundabout Theatre Company world premiere production of I Need That, opening tonight, is, at best, a decent enough excuse to see the great comedian of Taxi and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia live and in person. His grieving, lonely Sam is an ostensibly more lovable variation on his bulldog Louie De Palma or no-limits Frank Reynolds, even as he commands much the same whirlwind, scene-stealing center of all attention.
The comedy’s situation makes itself immediately clear with the first sight of Alexander Dodge’s intentionally shambolic set: We’ve all seen Hoarders, even if Sam hasn’t (his ancient TV set doesn’t really work, especially when teetering on a tall stack of magazines). Sam’s high-strung daughter Amelia (Lucy DeVito) drops by frequently to fret over the mess, argue about its endlessly postponed clean-up and plead for the some much-needed order.
Sam’s old friend and neighbor Foster (Thomas), meanwhile, takes a more sympathetic approach, swinging by with hamburgers, gentle advice and, we learn early on, some not-so-selfless intentions. Foster, the play telegraphs, takes obvious note of the more valuable items in the junk of Sam’s life.
Rebeck, a playwright and TV writer as inconsistent as she is prolific, can’t seem to get much of a plot out of the situation – the neighbors are complaining, the fire department is threatening eviction and, well, that’s pretty much it. What it doesn’t have in action, though, I Need That makes up for in repetition.
“Look at this place,” Amelia barks. “Old magazines no one reads. Clothes no one wears. Board games no
one plays. But you keep them because they remind you of all those brothers and sisters who were always horrible to you.”
And: “This is junk, nobody uses it, and if you would throw it out it wouldn’t take up space in your house or your brain which would be a good thing because your useless family doesn’t deserve to be remembered!”
And: “How about this word: Eviction. Homeless. Dying on the street.”
Round after round of that, followed by round after round of Sam saying some variation of, “Amelia. Listen. I don’t need you to come over here and tell me that you’re unhappy with the way I live. I live the way I live. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to come.” (To which audience members might be whispering round after round of “Amen, brother.”)
Occasionally Rebeck throws a curveball, as when Foster, who is Black, suddenly takes offense at one of Sam’s shaggy dog stories about a long-ago co-worker who came back from Vietnam “without all his common sense.” Foster detects some racism in this tale, an initially intriguing interpretation that Rebeck’s writing doesn’t land, in part because the details, like so many others in the play, just don’t add up. Exactly how old is Sam supposed to be? How old is Amelia? When did she leave home? Is she old enough to remember Vietnam? And how did she never notice so many of the hoarded items – that ancient TV, a killer – as in jackpot! – vintage guitar that ties in with that old co-worker (and, coincidentally, a real-life 2023 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee)?
Given the play’s underdeveloped feel, it’s no wonder the cast seems to flounder. Granted, the reviewed performance was early in the string of shows available to critics, and the actors’ tenuous grasp of the script – jumping lines, circling back, apparent improvisational word-grabs – might well have already tightened up (along with a tech issue that had the revolving set stubbornly refusing to move; other tech credits were fine despite some weird, Twilight Zone-ish sounds meant to signify that TV set’s age). More rehearsal time might have helped, along with a tougher hand by director von Stuelpnagel and some serious fine-tuning of Rebeck’s word-salad dialogue.
Admittedly, many in the audience that night seemed happy to overlook the shortcomings, and the reason was obvious: It’s hard to imagine a comic actor better equipped to handle seat-of-the-pants exasperation than the beloved Danny DeVito. This is a man who got one of the night’s biggest laughs with a single, improvised muttered “Broadway!” when the large junked-up-house refused to swivel on cue. He earned every last ovation that night.
Co-stars Lucy DeVito and Thomas do their best with one-note (until they aren’t) roles, so much so that it’s tough not to wish everyone – the characters and the actors portraying them – well. They all seem like very nice people, deserving of long, uncluttered lives away from things that can’t come unstuck.
Title: I Need That
Venue: Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre
Director: Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Writer: Theresa Rebeck
Cast: Danny DeVito, Lucy DeVito, Ray Anthony Thomas
Running time: 1 hr 40 min (no intermission)