Another New Group show, another chance to see Josh Hamilton in his underwear. The sight of Hamilton and Ethan Hawke strutting about in their briefs enlivened 2005’s frenetic Hurlyburly. And now Hamilton again disrobes upon the Acorn Theater’s stage, in service of Jonathan Marc Sherman’s Things We Want. Things we want, indeed. Alas, the vision of Hamilton in his skivvies—and pert Zoe Kazan in hers—is the undoubted highlight of Sherman’s play, a bloated, booze-sodden comedy about brotherly love and its lack.
The play, directed by Ethan Hawke, opens as the youngest brother, Charlie (Paul Dano), returns to the family home, a well-appointed apartment in a doorman building. Devastated by a breakup and fleeing culinary school, he slumps in his hoodie. Nearby on the sofa sprawls middle brother Sty (Peter Dinklage), suckling a bottle of Jack Daniels. Teddy (Hamilton), the eldest, dapper in business casual, completes the ménage. The brothers moan and scold and lecture one another in an endless round. At last, Teddy leaves for the airport and Sty goes to forage for more booze. He thoughtfully invites Stella (Kazan), a dishy AA buddy, to baby-sit Charlie. The second act occurs a year later, with Charlie and Stella about to celebrate their anniversary as a couple, Sty long sober, and Teddy now the house’s couch-bound alcoholic.
Sherman—a former high-flying writer who also battled the bottle—has remarked of Things We Want that “a lot of the stuff underneath, certainly to me, feels incredibly autobiographical. It feels like a very personal play.” So personal, perhaps, that the play suffers. The brothers feel less like distinct people than a tripartite manifestation of the same wounded psyche; each is more narcissistic than the last. They engage not in dialogue, but in dueling monologues and vaguely amusing comedy routines. Example: Teddy says of Sty, “He thinks he has chronic fatigue syndrome.” “Does he?” says straight man Charlie. “Who knows,” says Teddy, “he’s been too exhausted to go see the doctor.” Dano, better known as a film actor, brings some life to the material, as does Hamilton. Dinklage, excellent in non-naturalistic theater, falters here. All appear misused.
Occasionally, Sherman seems aware that acute self-involvement doesn’t substitute for playwriting. In a conversation between Charlie and Sty, Charlie exclaims, “Is the entirety of our journey on this planet just a lot of time spent hanging around a trading post, passing half-remembered old quotes and clichés back and forth between ourselves? That’s not enough.” Testify, brother.