Danny DeVito, his daughter and a lot of baggage (onstage)

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Danny DeVito, his daughter and a lot of baggage (onstage)
Danny and Lucy DeVito at the American Airlines Theater in Manhattan, where they are starring in “I Need That,” Oct. 7, 2023. Theresa Rebeck wrote the play with the father and daughter in mind and integrated details from their lives. (OK McCausland/The New York Times)

by Jazmine Hughes

NEW YORK, NY.- The first time Lucy DeVito acted onstage — an electrifying turn as an ant in a second-grade play about insects — her father, Danny DeVito, watched proudly from the back of the room. (DeVito, who had already starred in the television series “Taxi” and appeared in films like “Terms of Endearment” and “Throw Momma From the Train,” didn’t want to pose a distraction.)

Now, as Lucy makes her Broadway debut, he has the best seat in the house: right onstage with her. Starring together in Theresa Rebeck’s new comedy, “I Need That,” they are playing the roles they know best: father and daughter.

Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the play, in previews at the American Airlines Theater, centers on the widower Sam, a recluse and hoarder facing eviction. His daughter, Amelia, and his best friend, Foster (played by Ray Anthony Thomas), beg him to give up and give in — give up the stuff; give in to some help — much to his chagrin, over the show’s 90 minutes.

In midtown Manhattan recently, the DeVitos sat in a rehearsal space, the detritus from a deli breakfast spread out on a table in front of them. The improvised set was a disaster, a small kitchen surrounded by piles of junk: board games, record players, plastic bins, garbage bags, clothing, shoe boxes. At one point in the show, Danny’s character unearths a television set from several layers of trash.

The script was still pliable, and both of them were grasping to achieve the fullness of their characters. Danny was memorizing his lines, looking up toward the heavens every time he drew a blank. (When he focused, he curled into himself, hunched into a hug, his bottom lip out in consternation.) His riffs bejeweled every line: When the script called on him to invite his daughter in for breakfast, he instead laid out a menu. “You want breakfast? Coffee? Cereal? Eggs? Fruit? I got a really ripe plum!”

Lucy, on the other hand, was more studious and probing. During her character’s apex in the show, the plea for her father to change his life, her voice curdled from sadness into a resigned anger. While running those lines, Lucy pulled over to ask for directions from von Stuelpnagel: Where is her character, emotionally, right now? Should she remain hard or retreat back into softness? They talked it through, Lucy smacking a tiny Rubik’s Cube into her palm to punctuate her points. Her father looked on, silent and smiling.

“She works a lot. She’s really, really in there — she’s in there, digging, and that’s part of the whole idea,” Danny said a few weeks later during a break from rehearsals. “She never lays down on it. She’s always on it.”

Danny, 78, began his acting career on the stage. Eager for something to do after graduating from high school in Summit, New Jersey, he began working at his sister Angie’s beauty shop. She encouraged him to train as a cosmetologist at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and once he was immersed in the world of professional theater, he decided to try out acting for himself. After he graduated in 1966, DeVito acted in productions in New York, and in 1971 garnered attention for his role as Martini in the off-Broadway production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” He also reprised the part in the 1975 film.

He soon became a bona fide star playing Louie De Palma, the tiny-but-mighty dispatcher on the sitcom “Taxi,” which ran for five seasons from 1978 to 1983. By the time the show ended, he had met and married Rhea Perlman, known for her role as Carla Tortelli on “Cheers.” Lucy, their first child, was born in 1983. (The couple, now amicably separated, have two other children, Jake and Gracie.)

Lucy, 40, performed in school productions throughout her childhood, acting in plays like “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls,” by Christopher Durang. In college, she said she finally admitted to herself that she wanted to be an actor. She did not expect it to be easy; if anything, she prepared for the opposite. Growing up so close to the industry, she said this month, she was “very much aware of the hardships and how much disappointment there can be, how rough the business is.”

After graduating from Brown University in 2005, Lucy moved to New York City, where she played an autistic girl in an Ensemble Studio Theater production of “Lucy,” by Damien Atkins, and starred in “The Diary of Anne Frank” in Seattle, at the Intiman Theater. In 2009, she co-starred alongside her mother in a run of “Love, Loss, and What I Wore,” the play adapted by Nora and Delia Ephron from Ilene Beckerman’s memoir. (Lucy joined the show’s rotating cast first.)

In Hollywood, nepo babies, or celebrity children who coast off their family connections to get work they may not deserve, rule the screen. In New York, they’re passé. When she first began acting, Lucy fantasized about changing her last name, not wanting her parents’ reputations to precede her. (It doesn’t help that she is a perfect, even split of her parents’ faces, walking proof of the Punnett square.)

She never got far enough to decide on a name, although her father had some suggestions. Why not Nicholson? “De Niro, even,” Danny quipped.

“Lucy has always done the work,” Danny said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a time when either of us ever picked up a phone.”

The Roundabout Theater Company has now given both DeVitos their Broadway debuts. In 2017, Danny starred in a revival of Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” for which he received a Tony nomination. (Danny had to, among other things, wolf down a hard-boiled egg while speaking his lines during every performance.)

Rebeck’s play is not their first time playing father and daughter. In the 2022 animated FX series “Little Demon,” Danny was the voice of Satan and Lucy played his daughter, the Antichrist.

“I Need That,” scheduled to open on Nov. 2, will be the pair’s second production directed by von Stuelpnagel. In 2021, they collaborated on the audio play “I Think It’s Worth Pointing Out That I’ve Been Very Serious Throughout This Entire Discussion or, Dave and Julia Are Stuck in a Tree,” written by Mallory Jane Weiss, for the theater podcast and public radio show “Playing on Air.”

Lucy asked von Stuelpnagel to keep them in mind for future projects, and he connected the family to Rebeck. After a few long consulting meetings on Zoom, Rebeck wrote “I Need That” with the family in mind, even integrating small details from their lives.

Von Stuelpnagel said their interplay in rehearsals, in the same mold as their characters’ relationship, sharpened the production. “Lucy knows her father’s inclinations for certain choices he might make and she nudges him to come at it in a different way, and he listens with great respect,” he said. “That kind of collaboration is a special thing to witness.”

In one scene, Amelia shows up at her father’s house to discover that he has fallen and hit his head. She rushes to grab a bag of frozen peas for his head, checking his pupils, moving with the love of a mother and the brusqueness of a drill sergeant. It felt like both a role reversal of a familiar scene and a preview of the future: Who takes care of whom?

Although their real-life relationship inspired the play, Danny and Lucy see the differences between them and their characters, agreeing that, as a real family, they are less eccentric and less prone to yelling.

“You’re a very capable human being, and Sam doesn’t leave his house,” Lucy said to her father during the interview. “You’re one of the most social people I know. There’s a different kind of fear and exhaustion that comes from that.”

Danny agreed that he had “different problems” than Sam. “I feel blessed that I have kids who care about me enough not to write me off,” he said.

During the rehearsal process, the DeVitos sought to create a homey environment in a few ways, including, most importantly, by bringing in what Lucy called “amazing snacks.” Recent holidays on set have included cannoli Sunday, chocolate Monday and taco Tuesday.

“I’ve been on a diet since I was 10 years old, and I’m trying to figure out how to make everybody a little fatter than I am,” Lucy said. “If you’re around me, usually I’m bringing a sandwich or a nice hunk of provolone with some anchovies and some bread.”

In rehearsals, it’s hard to tell whether Lucy is talking to her father or reading lines. “They have exactly the sort of chemistry you’d expect a father and daughter to have, and that comes with playfulness, love and a history of irritations,” von Stuelpnagel said. “That familiarity breeds a really deep, dynamic relationship.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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