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Things We Want

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Seven... five... three... one? That may be an odd ordering of four familiar values, but adhering to that sequence certainly beats having to deal with life on its own disorderly terms. It's also as good a way as any for Jonathan Marc Sherman to anchor his recklessly bipolar play Things We Want, which is itself about as by-the-numbers as young-adult-angst theatre gets.

"The secrets to happiness," we learn early in the first act, "can be found in the most simple mathematical tools there are: odd single primes." The dispenser of this curious concoction of arithmetic wisdom is Teddy (Josh Hamilton), a thirtysomething executive for self-help guru Dr. Miracle (apparently his real name) and is now trying to persuade his younger brother Charles (Paul Dano) that his life isn't over merely because he broke up with his girlfriend Zelda, dropped out of college months before graduation, and has returned home in anguish.

"Ultimately, it all boils down to self-reliance," Teddy continues. "We're all unusual, alone, and actually indivisible by anything other than ourselves and the most important number: One. But to get to one, you have to use your seven chakras and your five senses to figure out the right three words which reveal your one goal."

As personal improvement goes, this advice is sillier than some and less ridiculous than most. But it's also a prescription that deemphasizes the importance of others in making us who we are, an attitude that inflicts everyone in the play to some degree. No one succeeds in conquering it until they answer the evening's most-repeated question, "What do you want?"

Zoe Kazan and Josh Hamilton.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Leaving the question unanswered is much easier for them and for Sherman, who sees indecision as the means to his own dramatic ends. In the first act, the determined Teddy and third brother Sty (Peter Dinklage), a raging alcoholic, try to pull Charles from his funk by alternate applications of Dr. Miracle's therapy and introducing him to a new girl, Stella (Zoe Kazan), who'll give him the fulfillment Zelda could not. As it turns out, she's just as misdirected as Charles is, which makes them perfect for each other now. But when Act II catches up with them a year later, it's clear that the problems that brought them together could all too easily drive them apart, especially when Teddy is himself on the prowl.

Before intermission, Sherman evinces enough genuine affection for his characters that the brothers' dependence on each other (both their parents committed suicide) makes unfolding events believable even when the dialogue is rarely self-assured, let alone penetrable. Trying to weasel information out of Charles about Zelda, Sty says, "Seeing as it's just you and me for the weekend, I figure we should hit the nail on the head. Eventually, you're gonna drop some detail that I'll be able to use against you and this obsession of yours. I'm a drunk, but I'm cagey." Yet even lines that land clunkily in the ear ring with the proper emotional authenticity of people forever toeing subjects they long ago learned not to openly broach.

The second act, which spends far more time dislodging and disproving self-help philosophies than in exploring the inner workings of these people who need them, is intended to amplify the cyclical nature of the meaningless existences the quartet has carved out for themselves. Instead, the group's gradual erosion into selfishness injects so much despondency and anger into the action that the fragile magic these confused souls once summoned all but dissipates in the acridity. They've learned how to build themselves up, but not without tearing others down - judging by the shifts in everyone's personalities, the intermission lasts 15 years, not 15 minutes.

This is a corruption, not a continuation, of the first act's story, and not the fault of the director. Film and stage star Ethan Hawke, who starred in The New Group's Hurlyburly in early 2005, has staged the show sensibly and starkly, and keeps things fluid despite the writing's frequent stops and starts. Derek McLane's stuffy apartment set and Jeff Croiter's just-after-dark lighting are crucial for setting the atmosphere, but Hawke's helping carry it through the script and the performances does more than anything else to hold Things We Want together.

Neither are the actors aided by Sherman's plastically pungent dialogue, but they generally manage to maintain undercurrents of good-spiritedness that offset some of the play's inherent ugliness. Dinklage is especially good at this, finding sobering comedy in the alcoholic Sty without making him the archetypal happy boozehound. Dano and Kazan wallow in just the proper amounts of self-pity and self-delusion. Hamilton has the most difficulty, never entirely convincing as being caught under Dr. Miracle's spell, but he's considerably better as the destructive, deflated gasbag he later becomes.

Interestingly, there's very little difference between Teddy before and Teddy after; he's just operating under a different influence. Whether it's the grouping of seven, five, three, and one, or of the 12 steps that characterize Alcoholics Anonymous (which also figures into the play), Sherman's point is that it won't help you help you get where you're going - the only way to survive the 10-story freefall of life is to realize that what you want is mutable and what you need is forever. Things We Want succeeds only intermittently because it and its playwright have so much trouble distinguishing between the two.

Things We Want
Through December 15
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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