I Need That | 1hr 40mins. No intermission. | American Airlines Theatre | 227 West 42nd Street | 212-719-1300
The couple behind me would not shut up. I was at the American Airlines Theatre trying to review the Roundabout premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s I Need That, and two randos in Row K were supplying DVD extras. When Danny DeVito, as a befuddled widower and hoarder named Sam, climbed a precarious shelf to reach a stack of old board games, they stage-whispered, “Ooh, look: Risk!” “Clue!” Do they think they’re at home watching a dang sitcom?
Well, kinda. Rebeck’s 100-minute tale of grief and release is the sort of middlebrow crowd-pleaser that used to be common fare on Broadway 60-plus years ago but has long since migrated to small screens. Neil Simon would have slapped on a second act and mopped up the box-office dough. Efficiently if not too sturdily assembled from punch lines, family trauma, and credibility-straining twists, I Need That goes down easy and leaves scant trace. Its pleasures are mostly due to an endearing and frisky performance by DeVito, last seen at the Roundabout in its 2017 revival of Arthur Miller’s The Price. Decades in TV comedy have endowed the beloved actor with impeccable timing and a ready-made persona: the crusty, shambolic imp from many a season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
While not nearly as seedy as Always Sunny’s Frank Reynolds, Sam also lives in squalor—or semi-squalor. Every time he’s needled by his daughter, Amelia (Lucy DeVito), or friendly neighbor, Foster (Ray Anthony Thomas), about the overflowing heaps of possessions filling the living room of his New Jersey home, Sam defensively points out that his kitchen and bathroom are clean and he showers regularly. Foster, who has an ulterior motive in Sam continuing to live this way, admits that the hoarders on TV shows are genuinely troubled: lost souls. “I’m not a lost soul,” Sam bleats, in one instance of Rebeck’s thematic spoon-feeding, along with underscoring the obvious connection between amassing junk and clinging to memories.
Sam is a widower whose wife was afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Showing her objects from the past was a way to restore the woman’s sense of self and the past. Now that she’s gone, he cannot part with her clothes, heaped upon the couch, or her many stacks of books, as well as countless mementos from Sam’s childhood and earlier life. Scenic designer Alexander Dodge rises to the challenge of hyper-cluttering his set (which revolves to show the front porch), arranging stacks of old magazines, shelves of unused appliances, a pair of crutches, unplugged lamps, tchotchkes, wall calendars, blankets, bankers boxes, pillows, wicker baskets, and scads of other stuff. (Unsurprisingly, the word “stuff” occurs in dialogue and stage directions thirty or so times.)
From a playwriting perspective, a hoarder’s pad is a narrative-generating machine. Besides operating as a giant metaphor for the protagonist’s constipated psyche (“I’m organizing” goes Sam’s standard excuse), there’s a story behind every object. Sam pulls out a vintage electric guitar and tells Foster and Amelia how he got it in the Army from a guy who served in the Vietnam War, who got it himself from the great Link Wray. For an entire wordless scene, Sam tries to catch a signal on a rickety TV set his father built from parts, waving rabbit-ear antennas like a mad conductor. In one particularly deft sequence, Sam plays solo a game of Sorry that starts out as an elaborate goof but grows increasingly desperate as he’s flooded with memories of bullying by siblings.
Staged with customary sympathy for unbalanced outsiders by Moritz von Stuelpnagel (Hand to God), the play is mainly a vehicle for DeVito to chart Sam’s progress from grumbly shut-in at risk of eviction for creating a fire hazard to decluttered man on the road to healing—and helping his distressed daughter. In that role—thankless, humorless, and not improved by a contrived late reveal—Lucy DeVito is bright and spiky opposite her father. Thomas gilds his character’s misdeeds with earnest warmth (financial hardship has led Foster to highly unethical stopgaps).
DeVito gets more mileage out of Sam than you’d expect from the page, performing with a loose, raffish panache. When Foster tells Sam he’s planning to move to Ohio to be with his son’s family, Sam reacts with visceral incredulity. “Cleveland?!” he repeats, elongating the first syllable with a gargling glottal stop slathered in phlegm and contempt. Funny pronunciation. Silly faces. Kooky obsessives behaving irrationally. It’s been the stuff of sitcoms for decades and popular for a reason. Still, when you put TV-level product on the Broadway stage, don’t be surprised if the audience talks back.