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The Way We Get By

Neil LaBute blends dark comedy with romantic optimism in his new two-hander at Second Stage.

Thomas Sadoski (Doug) and Amanda Seyfried (Beth) in Neil LaBute's The Way We Get By, directed by Leigh Silverman, at Second Stage Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Neil LaBute's work has always dwelled in The Way We Get By. His characters wade through ill-fated relationships, suffocating communities, and oppressive cultural norms, only to find that there's no way out — at least, no appealing way that significantly ups their chances of success in this merciless world. As one of the theater's most unapologetic fatalists, it's ironically fitting that he explores the deadly consequences of stagnancy within the context of a hopeful romantic comedy.

That's not to say that Thomas Sadoski and Amanda Seyfried — stars of the new two-hander at Second Stage Theatre — don't get the full LaBute treatment. Even as they romp around a coiffed Manhattan apartment in their undies, there is plenty of grit, and as always, a dark twist folded into the clean-cut trappings of a one-night-stand romance.

Doug (Sadoski) is the first one to surface in the dark apartment, tiptoeing out of the bedroom in the middle of the night in search of some much-needed hydration and an activity to keep him entertained until morning. Judging by all the lurking in lighting designer Matt Frey's perfectly cast shadows, Doug is a stranger in the cleanly furnished abode (given a purchased-from-Target sheen by set designer Neil Patel). Things only get more uncomfortable after Beth (Seyfried) joins him in the living room and the pair start trying out the romanticized customs of such a scenario: He offers to take her to breakfast, she wears his oversize Star Wars T-shirt — a dual-purpose selection by Emily Rebholz that transforms from nerdy grunge to classic sexy when she slips it on — but none of the rom-com clichés seem to suit this particular room, whose exact dynamic remains a mystery for what feels like centuries.

Leigh Silverman directs the pair's angst-ridden dance around the apartment with a light naturalistic touch as the plot unfolds in real time. Still, she holds on to the dramatic fire that LaBute injects into his characters — particularly the volatile women who so often pour from his imagination. Beth initially falls into this exact archetype, smacking of the scorned Steph from Reasons to Be Pretty as she jumps on Doug's every nervous misstep. Seyfried's lines drip with a venom that Sadoski's character seems to lap up like a repentant puppy dog. The rapport is both off-putting and disorienting as you begin to wonder how these two ended up in bed together if a first meeting could have ignited so much resentment…but perhaps a first meeting this is not.

Once a few hidden pieces of information are exposed, the temperature of the room begins to make sense, as do the performances. Sadoski, who earned a Tony nomination for his performance in Reasons, settles easily into LaBute's wordy sarcasm and finds his footing with Doug even when the audience is kept in the dark. Seyfried, who makes her stage debut with The Way We Get By, takes a while longer to orient herself, unsure of how to live in her character until the plot's floodgates are finally open. But once they are, she eases nicely into Beth's world, filled with failed relationships, superficial suitors, and a demon roommate named Kim to whom she is sick of being beholden.

Unlike the actors, the production is on the brink of snapping from this extended stretch of audience foreplay when it is finally allowed to exhale. Breathing with a newfound fullness, the slight comedy suddenly takes on a more robust presence as the passive what are we now? conversation subtly veers into an elegy for the elusive choice to be happy, heartbreakingly delivered by Sadoski. It's a decision we are all often too scared to make, but in a turn of romantic optimism, LaBute proposes that just maybe one earth-shaking evening in a Manhattan high-rise with the right person can inspire a change of both heart and nerve — cultural norms be damned.