What a time to be Theresa Rebeck. Two of her latest plays are receiving their New York premieres in high-profile mountings: the flower shop drama Dig off-Broadway at Primary Stages and the Danny DeVito-led I Need That on Broadway via Roundabout at the American Airlines Theatre. Both are about grief and redemption: the former about a mother in need of a fresh start after the accidental death of her son, the latter about a widower who desperately needs to clean out his house following the death of his wife. The works share similarities in their overwhelming sense of compassion, and I Need That is filled with the sort of kindness that one wants to see more of in an increasingly troubled world. But it’s lesser Rebeck, a sweet-nothing of a play that’s content with the superficial.
Danny DeVito plays Sam, a widower living amid piles of old clothes and magazines and junk that’s taken a lifetime to amass. Sam is about to be displaced from his derelict old house — the neighbor across the street alerted the fire department to his living situation, and they’re this close to condemning the place. Enter Sam’s daughter Amelia (Lucy DeVito) and his best friend Foster (Ray Anthony Thomas), who make a last-ditch effort to convince Sam to let his stuff go.
That’s the jist of it, at least. Rebeck gives each character a respectable set of traumas but scratches the surface and stops short of going further. Sam is a potty-mouthed widower who’s lost his will to clean, if not to live, after watching his wife drift away from Alzheimer’s. Hyper Amelia has her own set of issues that prevent her from building a life for herself, which she richly deserves. Foster, a plant enthusiast who lives in a neighbor’s guest house, is struggling to care for his soldier son with PTSD (Thomas brings warmth to the most interesting role).
These are endearing misfits you can’t help rooting for, and the events of the play are so nonthreatening that you can see the climax and happy ending coming within the first 10 minutes. It’s charming and sweet and ultimately very touching, but the complete lack of depth means it goes in one ear and out the other.
Rebeck wrote the play with the DeVito family in mind, and she hits both of their sweet spots, with Sam and Amelia fitting Danny and Lucy like bespoke garments. Few playwrights can build the ebb and flow of a comedic angry rant with as much flair as Rebeck, and Lucy delivers her opening salvo with a breathlessly delicious relish (she also believably conveys the requisite emotions of an eleventh-hour pseudo-twist that isn’t exactly shocking). Sam is a different kind of role for Danny, a sad sack who isn’t quite larger than life, but he impressively tackles it with a level of complexity that the play is missing (even if he does seem to have only a tenuous grasp on his lines). Danny and Lucy’s innate chemistry as real-life father-and-daughter also adds a level of familiarity that could crucially trip the play up in lesser hands.
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, a frequent collaborator of Rebeck’s, delivers the kind of production that any writer would dream about. It’s striking to look at, with its garbage dump of a set by Alexander Dodge that reveals surprise after surprise, character-building costumes by Tilly Grimes, and intricate lighting by Yi Zhao. It’s a playground for three actors who are clearly having fun. In the moment, we share their sense of enjoyment — how can you not when you have Danny DeVito screaming to a Sorry! game piece that it should go fuck itself — but it’s hardly a life changer. Do you need to see I Need That? Not really. But you’ll have a nice time if you do, even if it does leave you hungry for something a little more substantial.