NEW YORK CITY — The American Airlines Theatre in Manhattan is housing a small production entitled I Need That, written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, which follows the story of Sam (played by Danny DeVito), a man who lives alone in a house where he is hoarding all the things that he has gathered over the years, including some items that belonged to his late wife. His daughter, Amelia (played by DeVito’s daughter, Lucy DeVito) is extremely concerned because neighbors’ complaints have lead to letters and actions from various municipal agencies. Rounding out the cast is Ray Anthony Thomas as Foster, Sam’s oldest friend who is battling his own challenges and demons.
Out of all the shows I am seeing as part of my trip to the annual American Theatre Critics Association conference, I Need That is the show I knew the least about. Yet, I still chose to review this show for entirely selfish reasons. Having spent 26 years of my life traveling to New York and 4 years there, I had seen shows in 40 of the 41 designated Broadway houses. Seeing I Need That at the American Airlines theatre on 42nd street finally meant that I had seen a play in every Broadway theater.
Given my background as a therapist, I instinctively watched the story of Sam to see how the hoarding impacted his psychological well-being, the reasons for his behavior, and whether the storytelling was accurate. With a hoarding disorder, the person must hold onto things representing loss, and the elder DeVito portrayed that characterization well. Sam’s defensiveness when Foster or Amelia would suggest that he throw things was the same as what I have seen in my clients. All three of the actors were interesting to watch, and their chemistry with each other was strong, but the actual structure of the story was a bit more cumbersome than I would have liked.
One of the strongest aspects of the production is the fantastic set design (by Alexander Dodge), with a house that spins sound to reveal a rundown front yard. The interior represents a hoarder’s home so well, with its clutter in every corner (with props by Kathy Fabian). The scene change near the end of the show that had to be extremely tough work for the stage manager and stagehands.
I was also excited to see that the performance I attended was being interpreted into sign language by Hands On, a non-profit arts service organization. The three interpreters, Amy Mecklwe, Bill Moody, and Kathleen D. Taylor, were so fantastic in their interpretation that I confess my eyes sometimes left the stage and strayed to watch their expressive work.
The biggest problem with I Need that is its simple storytelling. I think the issue highlighted in I Need That are vastly important, but some of the resolutions felt simplistic at best. Rebeck’s script ignores some of the deeper levels of mental health challenges that lead to hoarding. Sam’s character arc seemed to accurately reflect on the losses he had that made him want to hang on to things and attach meaning to them. But when he managed to clean up and let go so quickly, my therapist brain thought, “Oh no! He will start hoarding again in a week.” The play lasts only 90 minutes, and that short time in which to resolve Sam’s conflicts meant that the play just felt unfinished. Changes to the script could show more understanding of why Sam started hoarding and the thought processes and changes to his thought processes what would be needed to help him alter his behavior. Still, it was fun to see the DeVitos play father and daughter and some realistic interactions taking place with such an emotional and frustrating situation.
Additionally, there is a scene where Foster lashes out in pent up anger at Sam, and while the acting was flawless, the sudden switch to total anger in the script felt out of place. Comparing that moment to a later moment in the script when Thomas and DeVito have a strong and well thought out moment of misdeeds and forgiveness, the show as a whole product just feels choppy and in need of fine tuning as a story.
Overall, I Need That is not unlike a hoarder’s house: behind the disorder, there is an emotional core that is worth finding.