NEW YORK — At the beginning of “I Need This,” Theresa Rebeck’s new three-character play about old age, the joys and tyranny of life, Danny DeVito is found crumpled on stage; The old but energetic character, Sam, moves quickly. He was asleep but bathed in the beneficial light from above.
There is a knock on the door.
DeVito’s Sam raises his gloved hand; It’s a gesture that serves both the play (he tells his visitor that he’s coming) and the presence of a star performer, since it’s a way for DeVito to both acknowledge and interrupt the entrance applause. “I Need This” is a star vehicle if ever there was one that definitely needs DeVito to work on Broadway.
In fact, the play has the advantage of two DeVitos, as DeVito’s daughter, Lucy DeVito (a lively actress and visual combination of both her father and mother, Rhea Perlman), plays Sam’s daughter, Amelia.
And while the actual family relationship isn’t discussed in Rebeck’s fictional world, it certainly adds a meta sensibility to a play whose first half mostly consists of a daughter telling her father that she really needs to get over all her bullshit. When young DeVito gets up to lovingly throwing some items in his father’s face, you find yourself wondering how much of this is based on their actual relationship, an echo the show certainly encourages.
It’s a mistake to underestimate how many of the Roundabout Theater audience will identify with this experience. Many of us have been faced with the task of removing our parents from one place and implicitly moving them to a smaller life, only to realize in the end that we have to take everything from their hands and hearts.
In fact, most of us are littered with our own detritus on a daily basis, all our treasures and echoes of the past, even if no auctioneer ever lifts the hammer on any of those junks.
Rebeck clearly wants Sam to be a hoarder-adjacent rather than a full-on “Hoarders” TV show candidate, and indeed Alexander Dodge’s set surrounds the diminutive DeVito with all manner of trash artfully displayed, but it’s far from a sea of rat-invested garbage. He threatens to bury her alive.
The problem here is that the stakes and dramatic tension in the play come from Amelia warning her father that unless he throws out those trash bags of old magazines, he’ll have to leave his own house because of the trouble. -neck neighbor and fire code regulations.
Frankly, this is a very difficult thing. I kept thinking there were places on my block filled with more stuff than Sam’s. And I found it hard to believe Amelia’s lack of understanding of what this all meant to a father she clearly adored. The game requires him to beg and push, but it becomes repetitive.
The other character here is Foster (Ray Anthony Thomas), Sam’s best friend and a figure who seems to be there to allow for some mushy “Grumpy Old Men” interactions as the pair constantly alternate with sharper “American Buffalo” type interactions. navigates and negotiates future friendships. It’s fascinating, if forced, at times. However, there are many serious mood swings in this production directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel.
Many people will be there to see DeVito, who at age 78 took on a huge role and was still struggling with its demands on the night I watched the show, and was still a lot of fun to watch.
DeVito is hilarious, period (he once made me laugh for a few minutes just by sitting in a theater seat and watching his wife perform). His solo act Sorry (feeling the emotions of all colors) on “I Need This” is a bit of a crowd pleaser success of powerThis old-school comic by Rebeck is the ideal gift for the actor.
Overall, this piece doesn’t rank near the top of Rebeck’s impressively diverse body of work, and I’ll bet you’ll find some things move faster than any fire department. But I’m partial to games that deal with experiences shared by almost everyone, and throwing things away is much higher on the list of life traumas than you might think.
Of course, we all need less than we think, but at the same time, throwing away our stuff feels like throwing away our past life. People who can do this without thinking are not people worth knowing.
“It’s not your job to take care of me! It’s my job to take care of you!” DeVito’s Sam says to his daughter, the actor’s real-life daughter, near the end of the 100-minute show.
Both their eyes sparkle with recognition.
Who doesn’t need some of that?
Through December 30, presented by Roundabout Theater Company, American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., New York; www.roundabouttheatre.org
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.