When appalled neighbors call the cops about Sam’s hoarding problem in “I Need That,” his friend Foster says defensively, “It’s not like… that show.”
He’s referring to A&E’s “Hoarders,” the long-running reality TV series that illuminated many Americans, often viscerally, about the disorder of unsafely cramming your home full of junk and the excruciating pain of parting with it.
1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. At the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street.
Theresa Rebeck’s new play, which opened Thursday night on Broadway in a production starring Danny DeVito, is not like “that show” either. Not at all. It’s nowhere near as compelling, focused or human.
Yes it’s a drama about someone’s mess, but it needn’t be so messy.
There’s a glimmer of promise when the curtain rises on the best moment of the play — a dark living room filled floor-to-ceiling with heaps of collected trash and DeVito’s Sam asleep on a recliner in the middle of it all.
Alexander Dodge’s impressive set is a painstakingly assembled combo of old magazines, board games, painted plates, VHS tapes, LPs, garbage bags and other assorted nicknacks. It’s the junkyard in “Cats” but jarring rather than jellicle. Dodge must have clocked hundreds of hours on eBay gathering the lot, and the visual effect packs a wallop.
What commences from there is a static, sit-com-like story, the indecisiveness of which demands you never take it too seriously. The writer seems to say that Sam is an average Joe with a common problem and an even temperament. So, “I Need That” relies entirely on the boisterous energy and charm of DeVito to keep viewers engaged.
Sam hasn’t left his house in years, and his troubles were exacerbated by the death of his wife Ginny. His adult daughter Amelia (Lucy DeVito, the real daughter of Danny) begs the man to get his act together, but he answers her pleas by shifting rubbish from one room to another, making jokes all the while to diffuse the tension.
He’ll insist, “I’m working on it. I’m organizing,” and then hold up a water bottle and proudly say, “I bought this in Calabasas in 1976.”
Rebeck sets up Sam’s hoarder scenario and backstory well enough early on. She just can’t build a satisfying play around the condition. Every step the character takes is totally predictable, until a few brow-raising twists that strain credulity.
Sam tries to clean up, of course, and regales Foster (Ray Anthony Thomas, strong in a thankless role) and Amelia with overlong tales about his trashy treasures. One yarn about a janitor and heroic Vietnam War vet who carried an electric guitar on his back to work everyday causes a manufactured and hard-to-believe fight with Foster.
Another scene, in which a solitary Sam plays the board game Sorry against himself — substituting for his estranged siblings — has the makings of something poignant, however, like the rest of “I Need That,” it builds to nothing. DeVito, with a personality that’s visible from outer space, is an easy actor to love regardless of what he’s been handed.
However, the actor’s likability and prodigious skill can only get the play so far. A big scenic move later on lacks oomph because we always assumed it would come. And Moritz von Stuelpnagel directs the whole thing with a hint of the cartoonishness that powered the terrific puppet show “Hand To God,” but unfortunately softens this one’s blows.
Something will nag at theater lovers who attend Rebeck’s play, and that’s its similarity to another modern story of an outcast — Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale.”
Hunter’s far superior drama, which was made into a movie that won Brendan Fraser the Oscar for Best Actor, was about an obese man who never left his home and was visited by his daughter and friend. Its stakes were instantly sky-high, its characters deeper, its jokes funnier and its ending devastating.
That’s a checklist of what “I Need That” really needed.
This story originally appeared on NY Post