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by Samuel L. Leiter
There are two popular, talented, and attractive actors in The Way We Get By, Neil LaBute’s patchy new play at the Second Stage Theatre; under Leigh Silverman’s spirited direction, they’re appealing enough to hold you in their thrall for its 85 intermissionless minutes. However, for all its adroit, authentic-sounding dialogue, and its naturalistic ambience, the play too often seems an extended acting exercise that huffs and puffs to fill out the requirements of an evening at the theater.
Set within a generic New York apartment, designed by Neil Patel, the play begins with a guy named Doug (Thomas Sadoski, Newsroom, The Slap) tiptoeing around clumsily in the dark in his boxer shorts and open sweatshirt, his chest and six-pack exposed to the elements. Doug is unfamiliar with his surroundings, which belong to a pretty blonde named Beth (Amanda Seyfried, Les Misérables, Big Love), and her roommate Kim. When Doug wakes her by turning the TV on at full volume, Beth enters wearing his vintage Star Wars T-shirt, making him terribly uncomfortable, since he’s a rabid Star Wars geek with an obsession about this shirt, signed by the actor who played R2-D2.
What follows is a meandering conversation that jumps from topic to topic while gradually hinting that—unlike the initial impression that they first met at a party the night before—Doug and Beth actually have known each other for some time, although never in the sack. They talk about the shirt, naturally; Kim (unseen) and her territorial possessiveness; Doug’s talkativeness; what Beth drank the night before; Doug’s stay or go ambivalence; their mutual discomfort with the night’s events; Chelsea Handler, and various other mainly trivial matters. Beth also attempts to have oral sex with Doug, who makes her stop, suggesting—although, in LaBute’s inarticulately articulate dialogue, it takes him forever to spit it out—that he’s worried about a “pattern” forming in their relationship.
All of this turns out to be playwriting byplay setting the stage for LaBute’s big reveal, which comes about halfway through, and which the rules of spoilership preclude describing. Whether or not you saw it coming, it’s hard in retrospect not to view everything that’s happened up to now as a trick, and, regardless of the author’s deftness, to question its plausibility. And, while LaBute uses the second half to watch his people try to come to terms with their situation, his approach avoids the kind of interesting discussion the implications might have inspired.
Despite lots of nervous and frequently funny chatter, we don’t learn anything significant about Doug and Beth, not even their ages or what they do for a living, so the director and actors must have cooked up plenty of backstory to add acting meat to LaBute’s dramaturgic bones. The boyishly handsome, 38-year-old Sadoski portrays Doug as a kind of charming goofball with a host of vocal and physical characteristics but there’s an often awkward contrast between the actor’s obvious maturity and intelligence and Doug’s arrested development and insecurities. Seyfried, 29, making her theatrical debut, is a bit more believable at embodying her character’s adolescent verbal and behavioral tics.
The Way We Get By takes its flavorless title from one of Doug’s lines, spoken when he challenges Beth to make a bold decision about their future, and not settle for what’s safe, which is “the way we get by.” The play itself, while avoiding the misanthropy and misogyny often attributed to LaBute, and even ending on an upbeat note, might have benefited from taking the same advice.
The Way We Get By
Second Stage Theatre/Tony Kiser Theatre
305 West 43rd Street, NYC
Through June 21
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).