Theresa Rebeck’s play about a hoarder is the slightest of comedies. Its plot is paltry. Its insights are pat. It promises more laughs than it delivers. It even promises more junk than it delivers: Before the curtain rises, there’s a tantalizing pile-up of old papers and boxes resting on the lip of the stage. But “I Need That” does deliver Danny DeVito, and for some, that will be enough.
DeVito portrays Sam, who never throws anything out — not old magazines, not a broken guitar, a broken TV set from the 1960s, board games from his childhood, bottle caps from the sodas he sold sixty-seven years ago to the old ladies during the bingo nights at Our Lady of Mount Carmel; not his dead father’s false teeth. A retired office worker, Sam also never leaves his house. His only visitors are his best friend Foster (Ray Anthony Thomas), and his daughter Amelia (portrayed by DeVito’s actual daughter Lucy, making her Broadway debut), whom we first see entering the house with a bag of groceries and an ultimatum: Clean up the house before the fire department arrives for their insisted-upon inspection the following week, or be evicted.
DeVito, beloved for the TV series “Taxi” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and countless movie roles, made a priceless Broadway debut six years ago in Arthur Miller’s “The Price” as Gregory Solomon, a Jewish acrobat turned used furniture dealer who “smoked all my life, I drinked, and I loved every woman who would let me.” Solomon was not a central character in Miller’s sober family drama, and it would be ungenerous to his starry castmates to say that he stole the show, but he was the only one of them to be nominated for a Tony.
Sam, his sophomore role on Broadway, is not as a colorful nor as well-developed a character as Solomon, but you wouldn’t know that from DeVito’s performance. A scene in which Sam plays the board game Sorry by himself goes on too long, but DeVito makes it work. The way DeVito pronounces “Cleveland” – oddly, stretching out the word, investing it with distaste – is a lesson in comedy. Even the one reservation I had during his performance turned out to be something of a compliment: I thought him too young to play the character, who is supposed to be about 80, but I later read that DeVito himself is 78. His vigorous stage presence does seem at odds with a character who is supposed to be depressed, but it also gives the production its juice.
Sam is depressed, we eventually figure out, because his wife died after a long illness, but we are also apprised of an unhappy childhood in a large Catholic family. This is a key to his hoarding tendencies, as we’re told unsubtly when his daughter Amelia scolds him: “Look at this place. 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…”
“Half of them are dead,” Sam replies.
Later, Sam himself admits: “These things, the things you can touch; they keep the world from disappearing”
While nobody could mistake Theresa Rebeck for Marcel Proust, “I Need That” is at its most engaging when Sam connects the objects he’s kept to specific memories, which make the objects precious to him. The broken TV, as he explains in one of these monologues, was something his father put together from a kit night after night after a long workday for a garage, because the family was too poor to afford to buy a color television outright.
Rebeck apparently felt that a man just discoursing on his stuff wouldn’t be enough. This might explain the two other characters, whose primary purpose seems to be to push him to clean up, although Foster is more sensitive to Sam’s feelings than Amelia is: “All of this is junk. I’m not going to say garbage because I know that’s offensive to you. But this is all junk.”
Ray Anthony Thomas has an easygoing manner that helps in the low-key comic stretches, but Rebeck forces a revelation on his character, which I suppose would be a spoiler to explain, so I’ll only say that it comes out of nowhere and it goes nowhere. It’s possible that we’re meant to see this revelation — along with Foster’s plan to move in with his son (in Cleveland) — as somehow convincing Sam finally to get serious about cleaning up, since shortly afterward, Sam signals his new anti-clutter resolve by tearing up a book. This shocked me; he could just give his books to the local library, I thought (a reaction that may be a clue as to why I would be drawn to a play about a hoarder.)
Rebeck reportedly wrote “I Need That” with Danny DeVito and his eldest daughter Lucy in mind, even using some details from their real lives. There are small moments between them that tickled me, although I couldn’t quite tell you why, such as a scene where she enters the house and discovers that he’s fallen behind the couch and bumped his head, and she retrieves a bag of frozen peas from the freezer.
“Just put this on your head.”
“I don’t need peas.”
But their interaction starts to feel repetitive, she doesn’t do much else besides nag, and she too is eventually saddled with a revelation, one that can’t withstand much scrutiny and doesn’t do much for the play.
A year ago, I saw a two-character play entitled “What Kind of Woman,” — one character, Nora, a hoarder, the other, Anne, a “personal organizer” whom Nora has hired to help her clean up the mess. The organizer was portrayed by the playwright Abbe Tanenbaum, who had once had such a job in real life. Nora’s hoarding was not the main point of the play (it was a sly entry into a discussion of abortion past and present, because Nora used to volunteer in a nearby abortion clinic in the 1960s and kept all the desperate letters she received.) But I bring it up because, although the play was Off-Off Broadway, on a limited budget, the play’s director Kira Simring and its set designer Tucker Topel went to considerable effort to show how the initially imposing, intimidating clutter lessened little by little with each new scene.
“I Need That” doesn’t wallow in its mess. Indeed the play makes a point explicitly (by what the characters say, and by Alexander Dodge’s scenic design) in distinguishing Sam’s relatively hygienic clutter from the disturbing wreckage featured on the Hoarders TV series. But more to the point, the play also doesn’t revel in the clean-up. The mess is just there and then, it isn’t. After desecrating the book, he and Foster start filling up a big black plastic garbage bag or two, but then the interior set pivots, so that we see the front of the house. It’s a magnificent moment of stagecraft, and the outside of the house is hilariously rundown. We have just enough time to savor the details — how the porch roof is littered with an ancient frisbee, a beat-up suitcase and what may have once been a satellite disc.
But then the set swings back to the interior and….(spoiler alert) the mess is gone.
It might be the dream of any home dweller overwhelmed by their own stuff to see it magically disappear. But allowing us to see the pieces of junk make their exit little by little — allowing them their own dramatic arc — would have been more respectful, and more satisfying.
I Need That
Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater through December 30
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $78 – $344
Written by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge; Costume Design by Tilly Grimes; Lighting Design by Yi Zhao; Sound Design by Fitz Patton and Bradlee Ward; Hair Design by Tommy Kurzman; Make-Up Design by Tommy Kurzman
Cast: Danny DeVito, Lucy DeVito, and Ray Anthony Thomas