What is it that makes Danny DeVito so especially irresistible to a Broadway audience?
In 2017, DeVito made his long-delayed Broadway debut (at the age of 72) in a revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company of Arthur Miller’s “The Price” in a spirited, minutely-acted performance as an elderly and quirky antique dealer.
He has now returned to Broadway (again, in a Roundabout production at the American Airlines Theatre) in “I Need That,” a new sitcom-style family drama by Theresa Rebeck.
DeVito plays Sam, a sympathetic widower who also happens to be an unapologetic hoarder, who is on the verge of being evicted from his home in New Jersey due to his refusal to clean up and clear out his possessions, which ranges from valuable collector’s items to pure rubbish. There is even a homemade television set that was built by Sam’s father decades ago.
“I Need That” serves as a custom-made star vehicle for DeVito – so much so that his daughter, Lucy DeVito, plays Sam’s daughter in the play. The pair are joined by Ray Anthony Thomas as Sam’s friend, who has his own issues and is on the verge of losing his home too.
Rebeck is an extraordinarily prolific playwright – so much so that she also had a new play, “Dig,” premiere Off-Broadway this fall, which she also directed. In 2018, her historical backstage comedy “Bernhardt/Hamlet” played the American Airlines Theatre. (As with “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” “I Need That” is directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel.)
“I Need That” is not necessarily a bad play, but it is a lightweight, draggy one that relies heavily on a simple premise, sentimentality, nostalgia, and the warm, familiar presence of DeVito. Often, this kind of works, as Devito, surrounded by piles of clothes, books, and other stuff, reminisces about the old days and old memories.
The climax of the production involves a heavy-duty scene change which allows for (spoiler alert!) Sam’s home to be cleaned up. However, at my performance, technical difficulties got in the way, leading an extended pause and several stops and starts.
Ironically, the audience at my performance loved the mishap, which served to break the fourth wall with DeVito. And at curtain call, DeVito thanked everyone for being so understanding. “We love you Danny,” a theatergoer shouted back. They didn’t care about the set change – and may not have cared too much about the play itself. They came for DeVito – who will hopefully appear in a more substantial play next time.
American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., roundabouttheatre.org.