The comedy in Theresa Rebeck’s I Need That exists arm-in-arm with tragedy, a relationship Danny DeVito brings together as movingly as reacquainting two old friends. It’s a delicate feat DeVito has often accomplished throughout his long acting career–with not nearly enough artistic appreciation–finding both the humor and pathos in roles as different as Louie De Palma, the aggressively sardonic NYC cab dispatcher from the 1970’s/1980’s TV show Taxi, and the cartoonish villain The Penguin from Batman Returns, who is somehow still a charismatic, amusing, and heart-rending figure despite his Pharoah-like ambition to murder a lot of children (let’s see Meryl Streep pull that off!) By significant contrast, Sam, the reclusive widower DeVito portrays in I Need That, doesn’t have to overcome any vile personal failings to win our sympathies; we’re with him from beginning to end, which is a testament to DeVito’s extraordinary talent and much, much less so to the play’s merit.
A repetitively thin outlook on grief, I Need That ostensibly concludes with an image of healing, but I’m not sure why, or if it actually does. It’s possible the famously prolific Rebeck had another play to write and figured DeVito would leave the audience feeling better no matter what she put on the page. That wasn’t a bad bet, I suppose, but not everyone has the privilege of casting DeVito to pull attention away from writing that ultimately falls prey to a cheaply metaphoric sunrise (no knock on lighting designer Yi Zhao who was just doing his job).
Besides DeVito, what animates I Need That is, ironically enough, death. Having served as his wife Ginny’s dutiful and lengthy caretaker during her implied battle against Alzheimer’s disease, Sam has now, a few years after her passing, emotionally and physically buried himself in the memories of their long life together, as well as some from his formative years. When the play opens, he is tucked away in all of this evocative detritus, barely distinguishable on Alexander Dodge’s living-room set from the piles of surrounding stuff that not only reminds him of previous joys but also sorrows. To be sure, the lonely psychological pitfalls of old age are atypical comic fodder.
DeVito, though, manages to wring laughs from Sam’s sad situation while never letting the audience forget the character’s pain. This difficult balancing act reaches its performative pinnacle when a solitary Sam plays a non-solitary board game that he’s grabbed from a perilously overloaded bookcase. Delivering Sam’s accompanying foul-mouthed soliloquy with astounding grace, DeVito, at first, hilariously curses at the competing game pieces and their rotten turns of luck before subtly transitioning to the achingly profound revelation that Sam is, in fact, locked in a shattering moment from the distant past. Unfortunately, it’s the only time in I Need That that the quality of DeVito and Rebeck’s efforts are in shouting distance from each other.
Speaking of raised voices, Rebeck pumps up the volume for many of Sam’s interactions with the play’s two remaining and frustratingly negligible characters, a lazy choice that is obsequiously abetted by director Moritz von Stuelpnagel. The principal yeller is Sam’s middle-aged daughter Amelia (Lucy DeVito) who wants her dad to clean up his New Jersey house out of fear that it’ll be condemned, leaving him out on the street. Whatever warmth exists between Sam and Amelia is solely the byproduct of the real father-daughter relationship between the two actors (Lucy’s last name is not a coincidence). That’s incredibly helpful, because if not for the genuine familial vibe, you might think Sam and Amelia were lying about knowing one another (now, that might have been an intriguing play!).
It’s curiously cruel how Amelia constantly scolds Sam, as if she can’t make the obvious link between his spiraling behavior and her mom’s extended illness and death. When Sam, who remains unfailingly passive during all of Amelia’s broadsides, eventually spoon-feeds his daughter a justification for why he can’t throw anything away, it’s a head-smacking moment where you know definitively that Rebeck has barely thought about her characters and their histories together. As for Sam’s next-door neighbor Foster (Ray Anthony Thomas), he occasionally brings over croissants or hamburgers as a kindly, if questionably nourishing, gesture that apparently accounts for his name.
If that’s not enough character development for you, then, rest assured, Foster also takes the time to yell at Sam: about how he doesn’t meaningfully communicate with his daughter (that’s the playwright’s fault, sir); about how Sam has too many things; about how Foster is stealing some of Sam’s things; and about America’s racist treatment of Black Vietnam vets-cum-rock-guitarists. That last harangue from Foster, who is also Black, completely befuddles Sam, and probably Danny DeVito, too. Of course, it should, given how inelegantly Rebeck shoehorns in this virtue-signaling filler.
Still, it does offer Thomas the opportunity to sink his teeth into one of Rebeck’s monologues, which she generously doles out to the actors, as if they cost her little to write (e.g. contemplation, script revisions). Tending to come out of nowhere and go there, Rebeck’s monologues work best when spoken by Danny DeVito whose wonderfully expressive face gives them a semblance of interconnectedness. That lends a bit of much-needed weight to the easily guessed moral of I Need That: if Sam gets rid of his stuff, then he can let people back into his life. But Rebeck’s facile play is in no way prepared to answer the gloomily palpable retort: why bother if all those people are gone?
I Need That (through December 30, 2023)
Roundabout Theatre Company
American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission