Mr. LaBute achieved prominence by writing and directing the films In The Company Of Men (1997) and Your Friends and Neighbors (1998). These scabrous works were followed by the unsettling play The Shape of Things in 2001, where a young woman seeks to physically transform her nerdish boyfriend into the perfect man. In succeeding years New York City has seen the premieres of a succession of such idiosyncratic formulaic explorations of the relationships between men and women. Here, this shtick is weak and totally unrewarding.
It is morning in a NYC apartment and Doug emerges from a bedroom wearing plaid boxers and a sweatshirt. He stumbles around the unfamiliar surroundings in darkness and with difficulty turns on a lamp and then the television that, of course, the volume is way too loud and turns it off. Soon Beth enters from the bedroom wearing Doug’s faded “vintage” Star Wars T-shirt, which is the cause of much contentiousness. Even an overview of the thin plot must lead to slightly imparting some of the surprises.
The next 30 minutes are taken up with the usual awkward chitchat between strangers who’ve hooked up. Ten minutes later we learn that they actually know each other. Ten minutes after that we find out about the depth of their past involvement and that they haven’t seen each other in two years until last night’s surprise meeting at a social event. The rest of the play deals with how they will solve their complicated romantic dilemma.
Henrik Ibsen could have rendered the painful situation the couple faces in a compelling manner. LaBute’s treatment is perfunctory.
As Beth, the lovely Amanda Seyfried gives a charming, and engagingly direct and straightforward performance in her New York stage debut. She is also eligible for combat pay for a very brief topless bit, and for simulating performing oral sex and then having to discuss the aftermath of it with painfully unfunny and unpleasant dialogue.
The talented Thomas Sadoski (who previously appeared in LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty) fulfills the author’s conception of Doug by being supremely irritating. He maintains the monotonous speech pattern characteristic of a nerd, with strident emphasis on selected words such as “thingy,” that is uttered numerous times. He is perpetually overwrought and looks very good in boxers.
For the most part director Leigh Silverman does a fine job of calibrating the performances and pacing the action. However, the opening is a leaden attempt at slapstick with the intended laughs obviously telegraphed. The comically executed destructive finale is equally overblown based on the writing.
Neil Patel has realistically designed the contemporary NYC apartment set with its IKEA decor. Matt Frey’s lighting design purposefully captures the passage of time as morning dawns. The skimpy outfits the characters wear have been well realized by costume designer Emily Rebholz.
“Neil Simon… hasn’t had an idea for a play this season, but he’s gone ahead and written one anyway,” the eminent drama critic Walter Kerr wrote of Simon’s anemic effort The Star Spangled Girl in 1966. LaBute may have had an idea for a play this season but the insubstantial The Way We Get By doesn’t demonstrate much evidence of it.
The Way We Get By (Through June 21, 2015)
Second Stage Theatre, 305 W 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-246-4422 or visit http://www.2st.com
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission