|I NEED THAT|
One man’s trash may indeed be another man’s treasure, as we are reminded repeatedly in Theresa Rebeck’s sometimes spiky but mostly sentimental new comedy “I Need That,” now premiering at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theater. Still, by the end of the play’s 90 minutes, there can be no doubt (if there ever was) that Danny DeVito is an American treasure.
As lonely yet feisty widower Sam – on the verge of being evicted from his longtime New Jersey home for failure to maintain his lawn, never mind the enormous amount of “stuff” piling up inside it (the spectacular set is by Alexander Dodge) – DeVito brings to the stage the customary gruffness all-too-familiar to his TV fans, dating back to the halcyon days of “Taxi.”
He bellows, he blusters, he insults with just the pronunciation of a single word. (I will never think of the city of Cleveland or the state of Ohio the same way ever again!) A short profanity-laden scene in which Sam plays the board game “Sorry” – as all four colors – is worth the price of admission. (Indeed, I’d happily give DeVito a special Tony Award just for that scene!)
But, as Rebeck and her astute director Moritz von Stuelpnagel wisely know, DeVito is eminently capable of providing emotional (and yes physical) heft to a character as multi-faceted as Sam. He’s a man who has turned inward, in every sense of the word, as the outside world has lost all meaning to him since the death of his wife Ginny three years ago. He can’t even be bothered to yell “get off my lawn” since it would require him opening the front door.
Some of his “stuff,” such as a collection of bingo memorabilia from his boyhood or a crude homemade color TV left to him by his late father, are clearly Sam’s ways to hold on to a more distant (and not entirely happy) past. And some of it is, frankly, junk. Still, it really comes as no surprise to us that much of the other detritus cluttering his living room is his tangible connection to his late wife Ginny, whose final days were marked by dementia.
What is surprising, if not altogether believable, is that the only two people present in Sam’s life – his single, middle-aged daughter Amelia (nicely portrayed by Lucy DeVito, Danny’s real-life daughter with Rhea Perlman) and his friend of 30 years, Foster (a superb Ray Anthony Thomas) -- seemingly haven’t come to that conclusion on their own. As they hector Sam to literally clean up his mess – and yes, they are being smartly protective of his future – they nonetheless fail to ask any questions about why he’s kept what he kept.
However, that’s not the play’s biggest misstep: a discussion over a guitar -- which seems to be hiding in plain sight – that was given to Sam by a fellow army mate during Vietnam ends up in accusations of racial insensitivity and personal slights by Foster. This vitriol might make more sense if the two were casual acquaintances, not close friends for 30 years. Moreover, it’s hard to tell after a further, overly dramatic plot twist whether that argument was genuine or a diversion from another underlying issue between the two men.
Still, DeVito plays every scene, every moment he’s given with complete honesty. That is something we need from every actor who steps upon a Broadway (or Off-Broadway stage). Let’s hope DeVito returns soon!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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