Closing Soon, Danny DeVito-Starring, Hoarding-Themed ‘I Need That’ Deserves Space on Your Overstuffed Schedule

In the rehearsal process, L to R: Ray Anthony Thomas, Lucy DeVito, Danny DeVito. | Photo by Marcus Middleton

BY EILEEN STUKANE | On the stage where I Need That is in performance, the curtain, playing the part of a canvas, offers a painted aerial view of streets and houses—a grid of suburbia in Anywhere, USA. My Playbill is even more specific: “Place: New Jersey” and “Time: Now.” Spilling from beneath the curtain and onto the stage are old vinyl records, papers, files, a bin containing a filled black garbage bag contents unknown, transfer file boxes—the title’s “That” found in the spaces of our lives.

I hoped to see how closely art might imitate life: I inherited a house in suburban New Jersey and experienced a front door that barely opened due to the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall objects that filled the entry way. The hoarders who lived in my inherited house were deceased relatives who were not around to tell me why they could not throw anything out. The hoarder in I Need That is the funny and lovable Danny DeVito, starring as an 80-ish widower who cannot throw anything out—but he must, because if he doesn’t, the Health Department will evict him from the house he owns and install him in state housing.

Could the play and the character of Sam, who is being pressured to divest by his daughter Amelia (played by DeVito’s actual daughter, Lucy DeVito) help me understand why my relatives and so many others—an estimated 19 million Americans—are hoarders?

When the curtain rises, someone is pounding on a door and no human is visible on the set of a darkened living room where books, papers, boxes, crates, clothing, children’s games and all sorts of unrelated objects abound. Stirring from underneath a blanket which covers him and a chair, Danny DeVito, as Sam, emerges. In order to answer the door, he first must push aside a mattress blocking it. So far, the living room of I Need That holds only a fraction of what I had encountered. In the play there is still room for the players to walk around and even surfaces where they can sit. In my real-life experience, there was nowhere except a narrow goat path to walk between living room, dining room, kitchen—and certainly no place to sit.

Photo by Jeff Minton

Opening the unblocked door, actor Ray Anthony Thomas enters as Foster, the third character in this three-person play by the accomplished Theresa Rebeck. Foster is a contemporary of Sam. Like Sam, he lives alone, stopping by for companionship. Their friendship goes way back.

Foster repositions a couple of boxes on what appears to be a trunk, and sits. He immediately jumps up as he has been pierced with something sharp, which turns out to be a bottle cap. This leads Sam to explain the importance of this bottle cap, a relic from 1967 and his teen years working Bingo night at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. Stories of his youth pour from Sam as he holds the discovered cap. “Everything here is worth something,” says Sam as he hands Foster a cigar box from those Bingo days. Foster finds a diamond ring inside which Sam acknowledges he took because the women would remove their rings for Bingo play. Whether bottle cap or diamond, what becomes clear is that every item is of equal value to Sam since every item helps him remember moments in his life.

The underlying pull of objects gathered throughout the decades, objects that call up different relationships and stages of life, becomes a motivating force in the play. The experience of being possessed by possessions is emotionally expressed by DeVito’s conflicted Sam, who mixes humor into the decisions over what he can keep and what he can let go (what he calls “Sophie’s Choice”). I think for a moment about the broken electric mixer on the floor of the house I inherited. It was hidden beneath boxes of Christmas decorations and next to a five-gallon glass watercooler jug filled with nickels, dimes, and quarters. I could understand holiday memories from the decorations, and even the coins which everyone in the family may have contributed—but what was the importance of a broken mixer?

Sam’s daughter Amelia relentlessly pressures him to clean out his house. Her concern is palpable. She is his single, career-driven daughter who has set her own goals aside to help her father deal with this impending eviction. There is a touching scene where Sam explains how his wife’s clothes, which are covering the sofa since she died three years prior, are reminders of her. He recalls his wife’s dementia and how he could not move any objects, lest she would forget where they were. He labeled objects with Post-it notes so she would know what to call them. This, he admits, was the start of his accumulation. The father and daughter share their memories and Amelia hears his fear that if he throws out his wife’s clothes, her books, objects that were important to her, she will no longer exist. Even childhood board games scattered on the floor, especially the game SORRY, hold important memories of their family. Still, the eviction is looming.

I Need That, which is a Roundabout Theatre production, looks at the way objects, with the memories they provide, help to take the edge off loneliness. Sam and Foster are living alone in their senior years. Amelia is a young woman drawn into the messy atmosphere that hoarding creates. The father-and-daughter reach emotional depth and honesty on stage. The play allows its characters to take unexpected turns, and there’s some surprising action before the curtain. I left the theatre with deeper understanding about the psyche of my relatives, and a new, clearer-eyed vision of my own stuff.

Written by Theresa Rebeck and directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Runtime: 100 minutes, no intermission. Performed through December 30, Tuesday at 7pm; Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm & 8pm; Thursday at 7pm; Friday at 8pm; Sunday at 3pm. No performances on December 24 & 25. An “After Works” audience/artist session follows the 2pm Dec. 16 performance. At the American Airlines Theatre/Todd Haimes Theatre (227 W. 42nd St.). For tickets ($102-$344) and more info, click here.  

NOTE: Eileen Stukane is writing a book about her deep dive into a hoarder house. She can be contacted through her website:


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