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, in regards to the disorder of unsafely cramming your own home filled with junk and the excruciating pain of parting with it.
1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. On the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. forty second Street.
Theresa Rebeck’s latest play, which opened Thursday night on Broadway in a production starring Danny DeVito, shouldn’t be like “that show” either. Under no circumstances. It’s nowhere near as compelling, focused or human.
Yes it’s a drama about someone’s mess, however it needn’t be so messy.
There’s a glimmer of promise when the curtain rises on one of the best moment of the play — a dark lounge filled floor-to-ceiling with heaps of collected trash and DeVito’s Sam asleep on a recliner in the course of all of it.
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 moderately than jellicle. Dodge should have clocked tons of of hours on eBay gathering the lot, and the visual effect packs a wallop.
What commences from there may be a static, sit-com-like story, the indecisiveness of which demands you never take it too seriously. The author seems to say that Sam is a median Joe with a standard problem and an excellent temperament. So, “I Need That” relies entirely on the boisterous energy and charm of DeVito to maintain 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 true daughter of Danny) begs the person to get his act together, but he answers her pleas by shifting rubbish from one room to a different, making jokes all of the while to diffuse the stress.
He’ll insist, “I’m working on it. I’m organizing,” after which delay a water bottle and proudly say, “I purchased this in Calabasas in 1976.”
Rebeck sets up Sam’s hoarder scenario and backstory well enough early on. She just can’t construct a satisfying mess around the condition. Every step the character takes is completely predictable, until a number of brow-raising twists that strain credulity.
Sam tries to scrub up, after all, and regales Foster (Ray Anthony Thomas, strong in a thankless role) and Amelia with overlong tales about his trashy treasures. One yarn a few janitor and heroic Vietnam War vet who carried an electrical guitar on his back to work on a regular basis causes a manufactured and hard-to-believe fight with Foster.
One other scene, through which a solitary Sam plays the board game Sorry against himself — substituting for his estranged siblings — has the makings of something poignant, nonetheless, like the remaining of “I Need That,” it builds to nothing. DeVito, with a personality that’s visible from outer space, is a simple actor to like no matter what he’s been handed.
Nevertheless, the actor’s likability and prodigious skill can only get the play to date. An enormous scenic move afterward lacks oomph because we all the time assumed it will come. And Moritz von Stuelpnagel directs the entire thing with a touch 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 a different modern story of an outcast — Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale.”
Hunter’s far superior drama, which was made right 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 immediately sky-high, its characters deeper, its jokes funnier and its ending devastating.
That’s a checklist of what “I Need That” really needed.