Review by Michael Bracken
Playwright Neil LaBute usually comes out swinging, but in The Way We Get By at Second Stage, he takes a more leisurely approach. Not to worry. His latest work may start a little slowly, but in no time Beth (Amanda Seyfried, making her off-Broadway debut) and Doug (Thomas Sadoski) are up to speed, yelling, confronting, and tripping over themselves and each other in this scintillating, scrappy two-hander.
We first see Doug pussyfooting in the dark in a well-appointed apartment, artfully realized by scenic designer Neil Patel. The single set is furnished in good but somewhat dated taste, dominated by a beige sectional and oversized red and orange pillows. Beth lives there but the apartment actually belongs to her roommate, Kim. While Kim never appears, her presence looms everywhere, evidenced by the pristine perfection of the living room, which she maintains ferociously. And she’s bullied Beth into being just as meticulous as she.
But Kim’s attention to detail evidently missed the volume control on the remote. When Doug turns on the television, it sounds at full blast, waking Beth, who emerges from the bedroom wearing Doug’s vintage Star Wars tee shirt. It’s shortly after midnight, and she’s freaked out that he left her alone. Was he about to go home? Did he turn on the television? “No” to both.
But more importantly, at least to Doug: why is she wearing his autographed Star Wars tee shirt? “I just grabbed the first thing I felt on the floor,” she tells him. Fair enough, but Doug won’t rest until the pilfered apparel is returned to its rightful owner.
LaBute, master of staccato dialogue delivered in fits and starts, keeps things moving at a brisk pace despite Doug and Beth’s tendency to circle around the issues. Awkward and tentative, each is suspicious of the other and reluctant to commit to anything. The playwright hammers home their uncertainty and vulnerability. They alternate between stammering sound bites and accusatory shouting. Doug tends to be on the defensive and Beth the aggressor. But he can attack as well, especially when his Darth Vader shirt is in play.
Initially, we think Doug and Beth met that night, but we learn they have a shared history going back to high school, when Beth and her mother moved to town. In typical fashion, LaBute plays his cards close to his vest, parceling out information as he sees fit, keeping us eager for more. Eventually he gently drops a bomb of sorts (which I won’t spoil by revealing) that clarifies what’s gone before and informs what comes after. The reluctant couple’s skittishness becomes less puzzling, but they continue to be stymied as they inch toward resolution of their thorny dilemma. Do they ever get there? Suffice it to say the play ends with a raucous celebration of freedom and joy, fueled at least in part by an unknowing Kim.
Leigh Silverman’s direction is flawless and fluid. Sadoski and Seyfried are perfectly positioned, and their interaction, verbal and physical, is organic. They’re a well-matched acting duo, completely in sync with each other.
Seyfried, known for her film and television work, shows she has the acting chops to take on the stage. Boldly explosive one minute, she effortlessly tempers her energy on cue to expose Beth’s fear and sensitivity. Sadoski is a tornado waiting to happen. Whether haltingly weighing every word or erupting in a stream of fiery emotion, he’s mesmerizing.
The Way We Get By charts a late night encounter between two lonely people constrained by society and its restrictions. Once it gets going it never stops. It’s funny, touching, and most of all intense, thanks to LaBute’s razor sharp dialogue, enhanced by the startling performances of Sadoski and Seyfried.
Through June 14th at Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street. www.2ST.com 90 minutes (no intermission).