Volume 20, Number 27 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | November 16 - 22, 2007

By Jonathan Marc Sherman
Directed by Ethan Hawke
The New Group at Theatre Row
Acorn Theater
410 West 42nd St.
Through December 15

You can’t always get what you want

By Scott Harrah

Jonathan Marc Sherman’s unfocused new drama “Things We Want” rambles in many different directions, but playwright and director Ethan Hawke never quite defines a point to this offbeat story of three brothers living in their inherited childhood home after their parents’ suicides (their father and mother both jumped out a window, respectively, five years apart).

The scattershot narrative and awkward direction are rather disappointing considering the impressive theatrical and Hollywood pedigree behind the show. Hawke, of course, is an accomplished actor; playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman has an impressive resume of off-Broadway credits; and Paul Dano, who plays the brooding brother Charles, received much fanfare for his role as a Nietzsche-loving, pilot-wannabe teen in last year’s Oscar-winning indie film “Little Miss Sunshine.” Josh Hamilton, as the eldest brother Teddy, recently co-starred with Hawke in Broadway’s “The Coast of Utopia,” and Peter Dinklage, who plays alcoholic brother Sty, was in the acclaimed film “Station Agent” with Patricia Clarkson, and has done various roles on such TV shows as “Nip/Tuck.” Zoe Kazan, as the hot-to-trot neighbor Stella, has been seen in such recent off-Broadway dramas as “110 Saints You Should Know” and the revival of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” Seeing such a stellar cast in a show this misguided is certainly a letdown.

Sty spends his days in a drunken haze, passed out on the couch, while big brother Teddy believes in the pop-psychology twaddle ladled out by his boss, Dr. Miracle, a guy who is often heard babbling on numerous TV infomercials (many of which the brothers watch on videotape at various times throughout the show). Charles has just dropped out of cooking school and longs for his recently lost love, Zelda. Dano portrays Charles as a lost, irritated soul and gives the best performance, but his interpretation of the role does not seem that different from the tortured teenage character he played in “Little Miss Sunshine.” Dano is a major new talent — he’s co-starring in several upcoming Hollywood blockbusters, including “There Will Be Blood” with Daniel Day Lewis and Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are” — so certainly he can do more as an actor than simply give blank, angst-ridden glares all the time, but that’s mostly what he does here.

The first act has its clever moments, some of them even mildly amusing, but they primarily show us what pathetic wrecks these brothers grim are. The brothers quote lines from “Pinocchio,” drink booze, and talk of suicide. Sty regales us with tales of his days as a drug mule in Europe and how he once vomited into a bag of narcotics he was smuggling from Madrid to Paris and avoided a customs search (don’t ask). Charles is advised to send the woman who recently dumped him a bag of his vomit as revenge. This is the type of off-the-wall humor that permeates much of the play, and although some of it does evoke laughs, it is never made clear where the story is really going.

Act two is set one year later, and the characters’ lives have all changed drastically. Sty has been through rehab and has been sober for a year, while formerly clean-cut big brother Teddy is now unshaven, unkempt, unemployed, and an alcoholic. Charles has gotten over his ex Zelda and has been dating neighbor Stella (Kazan), a former pianist who can no longer perform due to a mysterious hand ailment. When Charles leaves the apartment one night, Teddy puts the moves on his little brother’s new girlfriend, and soon he asks her if he can wear the plaid Catholic schoolgirl skirt she has on. She happily obliges, and in no time he’s parading around the stage half-naked, sporting nothing but her skirt and a drunken smile in this particularly uncomfortable scene.

It is difficult to understand just what playwright John Marc Sherman or director Ethan Hawke are trying to say in such scenes. Are they attempting to depict the manner in which brothers, united by tragedy, will go out of their way to help or hurt each other? Is this all an exploration of human weakness, family discord, and the dark corners of the soul, served up with jet-black humor? Is “Things We Want” supposed to be a psychological character study of how family dysfunction, emotionally unstable parents and alcohol all destroy people later in life? We leave the theater wanting answers to these questions.

This could have been a more intelligent story of how families cope with the demons of their past, but the characters simply aren’t developed enough, the various plot twists make little sense, and Hawke’s uneven direction never allows for much distinction between the actors’ performances.

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