Things We Want
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 3, 2007
One of the best acting ensembles you will see on any New York stage right now is appearing in The New Group's latest production, Things We Want. Jonathan Marc Sherman's black comedy about three brothers at the end of their respective emotional tethers gets weighty and nuanced consideration from every member of its four-person cast and its director, Ethan Hawke (who is no slouch in the acting department himself). The supple and detailed results they achieve give heft and meaning to a script that only supports them halfway.
Charlie, the youngest of the three brothers, returns to the family home—a sprawling New York City apartment—after dropping out of culinary school: "I hated wearing white every day," he morosely admits before adding that his sweetheart, Zelda, also dumped him. Middle brother Sty is an alcoholic who sleeps on the couch all day long ("He thinks he has chronic fatigue syndrome," one character says about him. "He says the Jack Daniels is medicinal."), while the oldest sibling, Teddy, is a "pathologically optimistic" new-ager who's under the tutelage of a self-help guru dubiously named Dr. Miracle. (It should also be mentioned that they all still live in the domicile where they grew up and where their parents committed suicide—a sure sign of arrested development.)
Teddy, who is aggressive and earnest, chides Charlie into trying to decide what he wants out of life, while Sty uses a warmer, friendlier approach—as if taking Charlie under his bourbon-soaked wing—to settle his little brother down ("I'm a drunk, but I'm cagey."). Sty even recruits a young neighbor from down the hall, Stella—herself a successfully recovering alcoholic—to help cheer Charlie up. Naturally, sparks fly the second these two twentysomethings meet each other.
All this happens in the play's first act, mind you. Act II fast forwards one year later: Sty has cleaned himself up, Teddy is now the drunk asleep on the couch, and Charlie and Stella are about to celebrate their one-year anniversary, and are looking forward to a lovely evening together.
Of course, this is precisely the moment where things start going terribly wrong in Things We Want, both for the characters and for the script itself. Sherman dismantles the play's collective security with an extended scene between Teddy and Stella (which I can't say more about without spoiling everything) that, while compelling in itself, is brought about by a gaffe in logic so major that it stretches the entire play's credibility.
The first act, though, is sublime, evoking a sharp, snarky melancholy as the brothers try to strike a happy medium between trying be "a real boy: brave, truthful, and unselfish" (references to Pinocchio abound throughout) and wanting, as one of them puts it, "to just crawl into a hole and sit there for a while." There are some funny bits involving telephones—both Charlie's cell and the house phone, complete with the longest cord in the history of mankind—as Charlie tries to reach Zelda and Sty prank-calls the pay phone on the corner. And Teddy's fanatical devotion to Dr. Miracle is self-righteously laughable. Sherman paints vivid pictures of his protagonists in Act I, and does a great job of capturing the ridiculously operatic despair that one feels when they think they're down for the count.
But Sherman asks too much of his audience in Act II, beginning with Teddy and Stella's scene together, which only happens because—and allow me to really emphasize this—Charlie (her sweet boyfriend) and Sty (his recovering alcoholic brother) both think it's okay to leave Stella (also a recovering alcoholic) alone in the house with Teddy (a lecherous, belligerent drunk) while they go buy groceries. Does this sound like a good idea to anyone? Yeah, I didn't think so. And the fact that Sherman expects the audience to think that his characters do is downright unbelievable. (By the way, don't think that I've spoiled anything with what I've written above: Teddy and Stella's conversation takes turns no one can see coming.)
This misstep leads to further questions: like, why is Sty still living in the same house with a raging alcoholic after a whole year of sobriety? Who cares if it's his brother? That is clearly a toxic environment, and to suggest that Sty can mount a successful recovery in it is, I think, a little naïve. Not to mention that his and Charlie's reaction to the messy aftermath of Teddy and Stella's scene is unsatisfyingly passive and anticlimactic. The explosive confrontation and denouement the audience anticipates never happens. Instead, Things We Want concludes on a head-scratchingly gentle and wistful note.
But, the production benefits from the strength of the performances. Josh Hamilton's Jekyll-and-Hyde metamorphosis as Teddy is impressively subtle and frightening. Peter Dinklage is compassionate to the core and marvelously funny as Sty (his Act I story about an airplane sickness bag full of vomit is a keeper). Zoe Kazan walks the line between girl scout-ish goodness and hellraiser-in-waiting perfectly. And Paul Dano's funny and sensitive performance as Charlie serves as a strong anchor. Hawke ties the production together with an invisibly sure hand, creating a world that convinces even when the script doesn't.
Even though the rest of the company compensates for Sherman's blunders, the indiscretions of Things We Want are still crystal clear. Would that they were not so visible in a production that is otherwise outstanding. Hopefully Sherman will have better luck—and instincts—next time around.