THREE BROTHERS AND A SEX FANTASY
by Harvey Perr
published November 20, 2007
Things We Want
now playing Off Broadway at the Acorn on Theater Row
through December 20
Jonathan Marc Sherman has written the season’s first schizophrenic play. It would seem that what he wanted to write was an amiable comedy which would provide his audience with a pleasurable evening’s entertainment. And, to a great extent, that is what he has done. “Things We Want,” seen that way, is, for the most part, good fun. But there is another play creeping between the lines that wants to be a tragi-comedy about three dysfunctional brothers who are addicted, interchangeably and even reversibly, to alcohol, drugs, and romance, while living in the shadow of – and in the actual apartment of – their suicidal parents. Each time this play begins to contemplate something darker and deeper than anything the characters are actually willing to face, Sherman stops and pulls out a joke instead. For those of us in the audience who want this internal and potentially exciting play to emerge triumphant, there is something about the good time offered by the external comedy that eventually grows sour to the taste. You’re either going to love this one, folks, or be bitterly disappointed. Count this reviewer among the latter.
Derek McLane’s set practically reeks with rancid odors and a sense of claustrophobia because it comes so close to being the real thing, an uncared-for apartment on the tenth floor of a pre-fab building, and he has placed a window, from which the parents have flung themselves, just off dead center as a constant reminder of their deaths and a constant temptation for their surviving sons. At curtain’s rise, Charles, who has just left college because he’s distraught over a broken relationship, enters to find his brother Sty hiding in the folds of the sofa, reaching out for whatever is left in the whiskey bottle he has cuddled up with, while his other brother Teddy is showering and getting ready to leave for a retreat with his wellness guru. Between Sty’s bourbon-tinged eye on the negative and Teddy’s brain-addled enthusiasm for the positive, Charles’s attempt to navigate between the two does not give him much solace, but it certainly is an occasion for sharp comic jabs from his siblings. After Teddy finally leaves to catch his plane and Sty leaves to get to an A.A. meeting, Charles is finally left alone to consider that centrally placed window, when – ah, good old deus ex machina – recovering alcoholic Stella arrives to save his soul, bed him down, and bring the first act to a juicy and fairly witty close.
The second act takes place a year later and Charles is about to celebrate his first anniversary with Stella, convinced that his romantic addictions are a thing of the past. Sty is sober now, and Teddy, who has discovered that his guru was a sharpie whose only interest was money, is a disappointed man and an active alcoholic again, clinging to the folds of the same sofa where Sty suffered his drunken agonies in the first act. This is the set-up for even more variations that eventually evolve.
Peter Dinklage is a wonderfully dry Sty, especially when drunk, and Josh Hamilton clearly has more fun with the drunken Teddy than with the life-affirming sober side of his personality, but, given the wild variations Sherman has them going through, they are both good enough actors to bring consistency as well as high style to their characters. Stella is little more than a heterosexual’s moist fantasy, but Zoe Kazan gives her everything she’s got, which is ample. However, it is Paul Dano (the son who wouldn’t speak in “Little Miss Sunshine”) who gives the play its stength and its heart.
It is to director Ethan Hawke’s credit that he hasn’t indulged his actors, but what he also hasn’t done is to give the play real shape, which often leaves them floundering about at times. It is really Sherman who is responsible for allowing his play to lose focus, go flaccid, and only tense up for the laughs. The laughs come, to be sure. But some of us keep staring at that window.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com