One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and that adage has never proven as true as in Theresa Rebeck’s new play “I Need That” in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production at American Airlines Theatre. Sam (well-played by Danny DeVito) is a 70 year old man surrounded by what appears to be clutter and trash. (There's a wonderfully realistic set by (Alexander Dodge.)
After a neighbor takes pictures of Sam’s cluttered living room and sends them to local government officials, he gets letters warning him to clean up his house and his yard. Concerned that he will be removed from his home, his daughter Amelia (played by Lucy DeVito, Danny's actual daughter) tries to get him to throw things out and brings packing material with each visit.
Fans of the popular TV show “Hoarders” may think they recognize the symptoms in the clutter and piles of ‘junk’ in his living room. Yet from the onset, Sam explains to his best friend Foster (Ray Anthony Thomas) that his kitchen is clean, his bathroom is spotless, and he changes clothes each day. So obviously what we perceive as a mess has a special significance for him.
Is Sam a typical hoarder, suffering from mental illness? As the story progresses and Amelia and Foster encourage him to clean up, he tells them stories. The objects he can’t discard have history; they hold memories of people and places. The piles of books represent his departed wife who needed to have her books around as she sunk further into a form of dementia, losing her memory and finally not even recognizing him any more.
Surrounded by the objects that mean so much to him, Sam no longer goes outside. As he tells some of his stories, the audience gets a deeper understanding of him. When he gives the background of an electric guitar, explaining how it belonged to a war hero, Foster interrupts what could have been a moving moment. Foster has a son who, after serving in the military, still bears emotional scars of his experience. Yet I found the scene less affecting than it should have been. Foster becomes irate at Sam’s lack of compassion for the guitar player, but somehow his anger doesn’t feel justified enough.
Despite a fine acting job by DeVito who is a consummate professional, the play isn’t moving. Directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, “I Need That” deals with a couple of topics that we can all identify but doesn't go far enough because there are disconnects in the script. Foster has money problems and is actually stealing some of Sam’s things, yet Sam doesn't even notice. Are we supposed to consider that we placed too much emphasis on possessions? Do we realize that older people like Foster are struggling financially, despite working for so many years?
When DeVito is by himself playing Sorry, a game that his family played together, he voices the game pieces giving them personalities. The scene went on too long, and, became tedious, making me wonder how Sam wasn't bored living the way he did. Lucy DeVito does fine playing the stage daughter to her father and casting Lucy as the stage to daughter to her real life father made the play more interesting. Thomas is good as the straight man and an audience for Sam’s stories.
I’m a fan of Rebeck and have truly enjoyed several of her other theatrical and TV works (“Bernhardt/Hamlet,” “Mauritius,” “Seminar,” ” Smash.”) This play was disappointing because it was hard to connect with the characters.Theater should entertain, educate or make us care; like Sam’s objects, good theater helps create memories, but sadly this one missed its mark.
American Airlines/Todd Haimes Theatre
227 W. 42nd St.
New York, NY