Two shows opening on the same night, one on Broadway, the other off, have many surface resemblances. Both sport a cast of three, run a little over 90 minutes with no intermission and focus on a late-middle-aged male protagonist facing serious issues of mortality and the quality of his relationships. Dig a little deeper and the two are worlds apart. Theresa Rebeck’s I Need That (presented by Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines) is warm, fuzzy and all wrapped up by the final curtain like a comforting holiday gift while Sabbath’s Theater, adapted from Philip Roth’s 1994 novel by Ariel Levy and John Turturro and presented by The New Group at the Signature Theater Center, is a nasty cherry bomb—explosive, messy and leaves you with more questions than answers. The former is a well-structured, predictable piece and the latter is disquieting, probing and uneven but brilliant in places.
In I Need That, wildly funny and touching TV star Danny DeVito stars as Sam, a 70-ish retiree buried under mountains of possessions he refuses to throw out. His daughter Amelia (Devito’s real-life child Lucy) and best friend Foster (Ray Anthony Thomas) encourage Sam to clean up his New Jersey house or the fire department will condemn it and force his eviction. But Sam has an intimate and profound connection with each of his items ranging from a set of Bingo tiles to a do-it-yourself TV set to a guitar signed by a famous rock star to a set of ancient board games. DeVito delivers these tales with a sweet tenderness and charm. Like Sam, Amelia and Foster each have their own issues with their homes, making them more than peripheral witnesses to his dilemma. The younger DeVito and Thomas give both characters depth and resonance.
Sam is not a “lost soul” like the actual hoarders featured on the famous reality TV series. Evidently his kitchen is immaculate (what we can see of it), he changes his clothes and bathes every day and there are no dead animals buried underneath his piles of knickknacks. But his psychological realization that he must part with his treasures is arrived at a little too easily. After blindly clinging to them for much of the play, he suddenly has an “ah-ha” moment after a hilarious solo round of the board game Sorry which devolves into a rage-filled rant against his cruel, now alienated siblings (brilliantly enacted by DeVito in a tour de force turn, taking turns for four different color players).
Rebeck is a prolific craftsperson, boasting over 20 NYC productions of her work (five of them on Broadway). She knows how to structure a play, introduce conflict and deliver a satisfying resolution. But she does not deliver uncomfortable truths here, instead she sells Hallmark moments, eliciting “awws” from the audience at the appropriate tender moments. There’s nothing wrong with a touchy-feely show, but I Need That lacks the aching pain of real-life hoarders. That’s not the play’s mission and it succeeds in its limited goals. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel delivers a tight, precise staging, as neat as Sam’s house is cluttered. Alexander Dodge designed the elaborate set with a literal avalanche of believable items piled everywhere.
While Sam is tidily taken care of by Rebeck, Philip Roth’s Micky Sabbath is literally stripped bare and wandering aimlessly after a searing soul search in Levy and Turturro’s stage adaptation of the novel Sabbath’s Theater. Like many Roth heroes, Micky, played Turturro in a blazing star turn, is adrift after a number of personal and professional catastrophes. He can no longer ply his trade as a puppeteer due to arthritic fingers. His long-time mistress Drenka has passed away from cancer. His current wife Roseanne (spouse number two) has thrown him out. Plus he’s never really gotten over the deaths of his big brother in World War II and of his first wife. The death of a colleague from his younger days and his myriad misfortunes propel Mickey into a vortex of despair and rebellion against society’s norms, especially sexual ones as he seeks release in the most inappropriate situations. One wonders how Roth’s heroes would fare in the age of #MeToo.
Roth’s dark humor comes through, but too often Turturro and Levy’s adaptation falls into the trap of characters telling us what’s going on (as in a novel) rather than showing us (necessary for stage action). Luckily, Turturro, Elizabeth Marvel as all the female characters, and Jason Kravitz as all the other males, give insightful, funny and soulful performances. Marvel is dazzlingly versatile as she gives full life to the sensual Drenka, the scolding Roseanne, an aspiring drama student encountered on the subway, and a supposedly conventional dentist with dark secrets. Kravitz is endearing as a 100-year-old former neighbor reminiscing with Sabbath.
Jo Bonney’s fluid direction, aided by Jeff Croiter’s versatile lighting, Alex Basco Koch’s projections and Erik Sanko’s shadow puppets skillfully create the inner and outer worlds of Micky’s imagination. This dramatization has its flaws, but it fully exposes a flawed character and forces us to face his nasty urges. It’s an uncomfortable but truthful experience, not a cushy one like I Need That.
I Need That: Nov. 2 – Dec. 30. Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theater, 227 W. 42nd St., NYC. Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission. roundabouttheater.org.
Sabbath’s Theater: Nov. 2 – Dec. 17. The New Group at Pershing Square Signature Theater Center, 480 W. 42nd St., NYC. Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission. thenewgroup.org.