Award-winning playwright Theresa Rebeck takes a very human look at hoarding, loss, the cherished memories inherent in objects, and the need to move on in the world-premiere comedy I Need That, commissioned by Roundabout Theatre Company and written specifically for stars Danny DeVito and his daughter Lucy DeVito, in her Broadway debut. Now playing a limited engagement at American Airlines Theatre, the three-hander, co-starring Ray Anthony Thomas, is loaded with laughs, emotional reveals, tour-de-force performances, and an affecting message that considers why “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Sam is a feisty foul-mouthed hoarder, who is on the verge of being removed from his overloaded house in New Jersey that he never leaves – not even to go out into his overgrown yard – after being reported to authorities as a fire-hazard by a neighbor. The only people he has contact with (since he never answered, then unplugged, his rotary desk phone) are his single adult daughter Amelia and his best friend Foster, who lives nearby, both of whom drop in frequently, are concerned about his pending eviction, and urge him to clear out the mess or face the threat of losing his home and its copious contents.
But everything there means something to him, so he hasn’t made any progress in the eight months since he received the first of many notifications from the government; if anything, it’s gotten worse. The question is, does he really need that 67-year-old bottle cap, that old portable TV set with rabbit ears, that broken electric guitar, or any of the other piles of stuff he’s saved and refuses to discard? He does, and he’s happy to tell them why, and to defend his right as an American to keep it.
Directed with a mix of humor and poignancy by Rebeck’s frequent collaborator Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the top-notch cast embraces all the laughs and the raw emotions in their hilarious and empathetic portrayals, never missing a beat in their rapid-fire deliveries of the characters’ impassioned conversations and confrontations or giving us glimpses into the psychology of their underlying motivations.
In a stellar return to Roundabout, Danny DeVito is a spitfire as the widowed recluse Sam, who can’t (or won’t) let go of the things he values, each a physical embodiment of a memory he holds dear and a story he shares. His comic mastery, which is evident throughout the show, reaches a peak in his non-stop solo scene with the vintage board game SORRY!, when he loudly curses and adamantly competes against himself as all four players, recalling both the childhood he shared with his estranged siblings and his daughter’s shared love of the game.
Lucy DeVito, in the role of Amelia, riotously captures the frustration and annoyance she feels at her father’s refusal to clean up, her concern over what might become of him if she accepts a promotion that requires her move from NJ to Nebraska, and the personality traits she inherited from him, including his risibly cantankerous nature. And Thomas turns in an equally uproarious and sensitive performance, manifesting the ambivalence of Foster, who is supportive of his friend and particularly attentive to his recollections about the objects he’s amassed, but also calls out the mess that his house is and the urgency of getting it in order, before he, too, leaves to go live with his son’s family in Ohio (Sam’s mocking of the state and sarcastic pronunciation of its name is another of DeVito’s comedic gems).
Near the end of the show, both Amelia and Foster make unexpected confessions to Sam (no spoilers here), which seem laughably contrived but add to their development and offer more plot points in Sam’s evolving story and ultimate decision as to what he really needs and whether or not he is willing and able to move on, while retaining the memories, if not the things, of the people he loves.
Of course, the set is of paramount importance to the theme of hoarding, and Alexander Dodge has filled it to capacity with mounds of boxes, books, magazines, and mail, clothing, outdated electronic devices, and other junk that make sitting, eating, or even walking through the house ridiculously difficult. Lighting by Yi Zhao contrasts the darkness of the completely cramped interior where Sam has confined himself with occasional bursts of sunlight when Amelia and Foster open the door, and costumes by Tilly Grimes, with hair and make-up Tommy Kurzman, distinguish between the disheveled look of a man who never ventures outside and those of his daughter and friend, who do. The telling visual design is enhanced by original music by Fitz Patton and sound by Patton and Bradlee Ward, including the static of the old television, the familiar tune of a long-time game show that finally comes in, and the 45 record Sam plays on his vintage phonograph.
I Need That offers a look into the excesses of our material culture and its effect on how we deal with loss and aging that is both laugh-out-loud funny and insightfully touching, with an outstanding cast that delivers. Who doesn’t need that?
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission.
I Need That plays through Saturday, December 30, 2023, at Roundabout Theatre Company, performing at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $102-344, including fees), call (212) 719-1300, or go online.