Even before the lights dim at the start of “I Need That,” the new Theresa Rebeck play at the American Airlines Theater, the show curtain and what’s in front of it offer plenty of exposition. The curtain is painted to depict the street grid of a neat New Jersey town, with neat houses on neat lots. But, uh-oh, creeping out from beneath it, on the floor of the stage, are boxes and bins overflowing with junk: ancient copies of Popular Science, bruised holiday decorations, stacks of old clothes, a sad single sneaker.
So we know before the curtain rises on what one character describes as a “hellhole” of a home that we’ll be dealing with hoarding — and the orderly world that is horrified by it. Making the point even sharper is the entrance of the star, Danny DeVito, as Sam, the impish, 80-ish widower who lives there. Well, it’s not so much an entrance as a disclosure. Only after a series of knocks at the door wakes him up do we realize that amid the clutter submerging almost every surface of this once-handsome living room is Sam himself, indistinguishable from the trash.
Alas, the busy set, by Alexander Dodge, leaves little for the rest of the play to do. Hyper-competently, like a good three-camera sitcom, Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s production for the Roundabout Theater Company, which opened on Thursday, will inch out Sam’s story — as well as that of his daughter, Amelia, and his old pal Foster. It will calibrate the requisite unsurprising surprises. It will cut its laughs with pathos and plump for a tear at the end.
That’s no small feat, of course. Rebeck has a keen feeling for structure and the larger movements of storytelling. This is her 21st major New York production, and fifth on Broadway, since 1992. (She is also the creator of the TV series “Smash,” so she obviously knows plenty about sustaining conflict.) And there’s certainly pleasure to be had when an expert like DeVito, for 15 seasons a star of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” gets his mouth around a morsel of fragrant patois (he describes a worthless bottle cap as a meaningful souvenir “from my yout’”) or a juicy monologue. At one point he plays all sides of a game of Sorry!, complete with vicious kibitzing and gloating.