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A CurtainUp Review
Things We Want
By Elyse Sommer
At 39 Mr. Sherman is no longer a boy wonder and has had a long dry spell. His new play, This Is What We Want, arrives Off-Broadway with a lot in its favor: It's being presented by a prestigious Off-Broadway company, the New Group. . .the director is long-time Sherman loyalist, the versatile Ethan Hawke (he's best known as an actor, but is also a two-time novelist and directed for the MalaparTheate Company which he co-founded in the 90s along with playwright Sherman, Peter Dinklage, and Josh Hamilton).
Given Sherman's own history (alcoholism and being orphaned at age six by his mother's suicide) Things We Want is certainly a case of writing about what you know. Using his own background as a starting point for a still greater tragedy — the suicide of father and mother and its lingering effect on their three physically but not emotionally adult sons— Sherman has given himself a potent opportunity to explore the relationship of three very different brothers reacting to events that probably simmered and festered long before the parents took those fatal leaps out of their tenth floor apartment's living room window.
As I learned from seeing Evolution, Sherman has a knack for sharp comic dialogue but he's not really a frivolous writer with nothing on his mind other than to entertain and amuse the audience. In Things We Want he applies his taste for black comedy to a major tragedy, a stylistic marriage that more often than not makes for a dramatically confusing and unsatisfying mix. Despite some similarities to Sam Shepherd's sibling plays, this drama about brothers united and divided by a history of family dysfunction, not to mention failed romances and jobs, does not escape falling into this trap.
The actors expertly handle Sherman's despair flavored gallows humor. Dinklage and Hamilton manage the two older brothers' segues between glibness and pain so smoothly that they almost overcome the play's too many loose ends. Zoe Kazan, who made a strong impression in the New Group's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and, even more recently, in 1001 Saints You Should Know, does so again. However, she has less to work with in this role as the brothers' neighbor who is also no stranger to Alcoholic Anoymous. Paul Dano another up-and-coming young actor (he's best known for playing Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine ) is eloquent and touching as the youngest member of the family who is passionate about food and romance — in the context of his family history, addictively so.
The play is interestingly structured so that the plot triggering crisis is completely turned on its head in the year that elapses between acts one and two. The situation that takes us into the apartment inherited by the brothers from their parents is the 23-year-old kid brother Charley's (Dano) unexpectedf arrival. A break-up with his girl friend has caused him to drop out of culinary college just a few months short of graduation suffering from "a heart nervous breakdown." Middle brother Sty (Dinklage) is zonked out on the couch in an alcoholic haze. And so we have Sty something of a full-time basket case and Charley an emotional wreck. The only tightly wrapped member of the family seems to be Teddy (Hamilton), the oldest brother. His efforts to make sense out of Charley's decision, and possibly persuade him to reconsider it, entail some of the mumbo jumbo of his guru and boss, Dr. Miracle (a variation of Werner Erhard's 1970s est movement). A Dr. Miracle tape spouting the symbolic primary numbers that are the essence of his self-actualization "cure" is the first thing we hear.
When Teddy leaves for a Dr. Miracle seminar, Sty comes up with his own idea for helping Charley out of his funk. He introduces him to Stella (Kazan) one of the many vulnerable young women who've motivated him to attend AA meetings. The idea is that the best way to get over one girl friend is with another.
The second act begins like the first, with a drunken figure sprawled on the sofa. Other than to tell you that the big difference is that this time it's not Sty, that's about as much of the plot as I should reveal. Of the various scenes (between the three brothers, between Teddy and Charley, between Charley and Sty, between Sty and Teddy, and between one or the other of the brothers with the equally damaged Stella) a few succeed at being both sad and funny. However, the dynamic between the brothers which should be the heart of this play, is never clearly or fully realized. And while hints about problems brewing in this family from the time the boys emerged from what Charley refers to as the mother's " rent free womb" are scattered throughout the play, it's all frustratingly unfleshed out. Ethan Hawke's best efforts to move things forward can't prevent the play from ending on a flat note that leaves us let down and prevents us from being really engaged by these characters.
The play is well served by the designers, especially Derek McLane's apartment in an unnamed city that's subtly dominated by a large window — the very one from which the parents jumped. That window represents the challenge facing the brothers and driving their addictive tendencies: to survive these inexplicable acts and live normal lives —perhaps even happy ones. Too bad that challenge hasn't been met with more depth and meaningful development of the potentially rich characters.
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