Let’s face it: No one’s going to hire Danny DeVito to play Lear. Or Willy Loman. Or even George to Albee’s Martha. In the eyes of the world, DeVito is a clown, just short of having a Bozo nose. If he stood onstage reading the obituary page, people would die laughing.
So it doesn’t really matter that playwright Theresa Rebeck’s “I Need That” — written for DeVito and his daughter, Lucy DeVito, and playing at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre on Broadway — is basically a 90-minute sitcom episode, full of sentimentality. TV is what DeVito does best, and he’s good at this. He’s easy, relaxed and sparking with grumpy mirth.
Directed by Maritz von Stuelpnagel, “I Need That” centers around a stubborn old hoarder threatened with eviction because his decades worth of memorabilia is spilling out onto the front lawn. And though there are moments of tension — as when the old man’s daughter (played charmingly by Lucy DeVito) and best friend (in a heartfelt performance by Ray Anthony Thomas) are haranguing him about cleaning up, or, later, admitting to him that they must move on — DeVito spends most of the play up there in his bathrobe, hair all mussed, interacting with a sea of fun props: boardgames, a television set with rabbit ears, old poker chips, a beat-up electric guitar. The best moment in the play is watching DeVito, alone in the house, beat himself at the boardgame Sorry!
There is an attempt, near the end of the show, to add meaning and depth to the story’s otherwise surface-level emotions. Eventually we’re told that the things we’re attached to from the past keep us from living in the present, but the notion isn’t woven into the text or explored throughout the play. It arrives way too late, with the impact of a Hallmark card.
Still, “I Need That” will prove satisfying for those looking to be entertained by DeVito and his daughter. He brings real joy and laughter, and there’s real value in that.