Designer Derek McLane’s set for “Things We Want” has the lived-in texture of a family apartment that in no way reflects the personalities of the three offspring now occupying it, but is home nonetheless. Thanks to accomplished tech backup, it looks, feels and sounds like a real place. But almost nothing being said in Jonathan Marc Sherman’s phony comedy about the tenuous balance of happiness and stability rings true. Pairing artificial, movie-ish dialogue with an actor in the director’s chair is an unhappy combination, and, while Ethan Hawke uses the space confidently, he allows his talented cast to push mannered material further into self-consciousness.
Sherman made some noise as a writer before turning 20 with “Women and Wallace” and then fell off the map for several years, due partly to a bout of alcoholism.
The vehicle for his return, unsurprisingly, deals in dry, often humorous fashion with dependency, depression, suicide and emotional volatility, but the glimmers of authentic experience are well disguised. Instead, the writing is tiresomely in thrall to David Rabe (both Hawke and cast member Josh Hamilton appeared in the New Group’s “Hurlyburly” revival) and to a lesser degree David Mamet, with a studied hipster veneer and ample dollops of cliche and contrivance. Actors, however, tend to love this stuff, which explains the names involved.
The three brothers once again living together in their childhood home each have their own way of acknowledging the long shadow of their parents’ deaths. The most harshly affected of them is Charlie (Paul Dano), who feels at fault because his father jumped out the living room window on his 13th birthday and his mother took the same exit five years later on his high school graduation day.
Freshly dumped by his girlfriend, Charlie drops out of culinary school and slinks home to his brothers, annoyingly positive Teddy (Hamilton) and alcoholic Sty (Peter Dinklage).
Teddy’s job in the motivational self-help world colors his every conversation through the first act, as well as providing the play’s title and its half-baked central theme, about examining our desires to figure out the real or imagined gap within ourselves.
What Charlie wants is to be in love, so he latches onto the first candidate who presents herself, when Sty thrusts him together with hot young neighbor and fellow AA member Stella (Zoe Kazan) in a meet-cute scene.
The playwright works so hard at being unpredictable it becomes schematic. The play’s “drastic shift” (to quote publicity materials) is telegraphed even before we return from intermission to find that Teddy has gone off the rails while Sty is celebrating one year of efficient sobriety. And when Stella declares, “I’m often attracted to people who treat me very badly,” it’s a pretty safe bet she won’t be sticking with sweet, vulnerable Charlie for long.
Sherman’s characters are all so gratingly self-aware they rarely seem genuine enough to be convincingly conflicted despite more than one of them teetering on the much-trafficked window ledge. The second act, in particular, spends a lot of time in self-congratulatory cleverness, none of it fresh, even resorting to that hackneyed standby of ironically dissecting pop song lyrics.
Being a guy play, the lone woman comes off worst. Stella is a Juilliard dropout whose promising piano career was curtailed by an arthritic right hand. Cue laborious metaphor for one side of her thwarting the other’s happiness. Kazan is a compelling stage actress seen playing a younger, more sensitively realized version of a girl driven by dark impulses and scared of conventionality only weeks ago in “100 Saints You Should Know.” Here she’s stuck with zingers like, “I can’t decide if you’re more of an objectifying misogynist or a misogynistic objectifier.”
The equally gifted Hamilton is hoodwinked also by an obnoxiously fake character, indulging in too many actor-y exhibitions (his dialogue with Marlon Brando on TV should not be wished upon anyone). Dano comes across more sympathetically, projecting a nice mopey, lost quality.
The real bright spot, however, is Dinklage. There’s an extended moment in act one during which his grouchy but genial characterization and belligerent physical comedy make you believe there’s a likeable and truly funny person onstage. However, even Sty can’t survive the forced transitions of act two as it becomes increasingly clear Sherman’s play talks some glib talk but is going nowhere.