“I’m totally getting my ass kicked,” said Paul Dano, the 23-year-old actor known as the silent-oath-taking, Nietzsche-obsessed older brother in last year’s Academy Award-winning hit Little Miss Sunshine. He was discussing his current role as Charlie, a heartbroken college dropout, in the Ethan Hawke-directed, Off Broadway play Things We Want, currently in previews at the Acorn Theater.
In the New Group-produced play, Mr. Dano plays one of a trio of brothers. The other two, Teddy and Sty, are played by stage vets Josh Hamilton (remember Kicking and Screaming, the one that didn’t star Will Ferrell?) and Peter Dinklage, who just about charmed the pants off Patricia Clarkson in The Station Agent. Forced to live together in their childhood apartment, the three slug whiskey shots, quote Pinocchio, threaten to jump out windows and desperately try to numb the pain of their pasts while they blindly search for the things that might bring them relief, or better, happiness.
“What’s frightening about Charlie is that there are definitely some things that happen to him that I can relate to, in a personal way,” Mr. Dano explained over the phone. “It’s much harder to play somebody who does hit close to home. That was definitely what attracted me to Charlie and that’s definitely the challenge that I’m facing right now.”
So what could such a young actor possibly relate to so profoundly? Um, heartbreak, of course! Mr. Dano’s Charlie suffered from a “heartbreakdown” after his girlfriend, Zelda, broke up with him. He dropped out of culinary school to move in with his brothers, who are no better off. Mr. Hamilton’s Teddy seeks the bliss through a guru known as Mr. Miracle; Mr. Dinklage’s Sty sleeps and drinks the days away. The worst part: The apartment they share was also the scene of their parents’ suicide. (Did you really expect something lighter for Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut in the theatre? We didn’t either.)
Things We Want marks the return of playwright wunderkind Jonathan Marc Sherman, who wrote the acclaimed dark comedy Women and Wallace in 1989, when he was just 18 years old. That play, which was staged at the Young Playwrights Festival at Playwrights Horizons, starred Mr. Hamilton as the title character grappling with his mother’s suicide through a series of romantic trysts. It became a TV movie in 1990 starring Cynthia Nixon and Mr. Hamilton. Mr. Sherman’s decade-long absence from the theater scene was largely credited to alcoholism, although a May 2001 panic attack forced him into sobriety.
“FOR A WHILE NOW I’ve been trying to find a play that I like, not just for the thrill of it but because it’s a totally different thing from film,” said Mr. Dano. Born in Wilton, Conn., he began his acting career on the stage at age 12, as Mr. Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. He went on to appear alongside Helen Mirren in A Month in the Country and George C. Scott in Inherit the Wind. “There’s a rush you get when you’re in front of an audience, and it’s different from being in front of a camera.”
He landed his first film role in 2000 for The Newcomers, but the next year brought his breakout performance in superindie L.I.E. (yep, it’s about the road that goes to the Hamptons!) as a troubled teen who becomes involved in a relationship with an older man. He won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Debut Performance.
Mr. Dano was a student to Kevin Kline’s prep school teacher in 2002’s The Emperor’s Club and a nerdy best friend to Emile Hirsch in The Girl Next Door in 2004. Although Little Miss Sunshine brought national notoriety and notice—he is starring in the forthcoming Paul Thomas Anderson movie There Will Be Blood alongside Daniel Day Lewis, as well as in Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are—he was happy to avoid the shimmering celebrity glow of Hollywood and return home to New York, and the theater.
“I just think Jonathan’s writing is an amazing combination of darkness and humor,” Mr. Dano explained. “I think there is a lot of uncomfortable laughs, I can relate to that. … It’s like if you listen to a piece of music and some songs kind of hit you and some don’t. I don’t know if you can always describe why.”
It also helped that Mr. Hawke and Mr. Hamilton were spearheading the project, he added. “I’m really lucky to be able to do a play with those guys,” Mr. Dano said. “Spending time in the rehearsal room, there’s no more bonding than what happens there, just getting our stink on.”