In a Pottery Barned New York apartment, a postcoital couple awakens in the wee hours and stumbles through a discussion about their future. Have we not seen this before? Doug (an unrecognizably ripped Thomas Sadoski) wants to go for it, grab for the brass ring — or even the gold one — and take the big chance on love. Beth (lovely Amanda Seyfried) isn’t so sure. Oh, she’s into Doug, has been for years, just as he has wanted her from the moment she moved into his neighborhood during high school. But there’s a problem … somewhere, and it’s going to take exactly 42 minutes of the play’s 85 to find out what it is.
Alas, that’s the sum of what I can say about the plot of The Way We Get By, Neil LaBute’s latest disappointing mousetrap, opening tonight at Second Stage. But the booby-trapped construction is not just a problem for critics. It’s a tic and a failing that permeates perhaps half of LaBute’s plays, which have been appearing fairly steadily since 1989 and have now reached the weird status of reliable summer entertainment. The other half have a different problem: They are so bitterly misanthropic (and, some say, misogynistic) that subjecting oneself to them feels like a masochistic act. Still, The Company of Men, Fat Pig, and Reasons to Be Pretty are smartly written and well structured to make their points, which (I would argue) are less about LaBute’s own supposed attitudes than the world’s.
The Way We Get By is a little of both. It certainly does not offer a positive recommendation for being human. It also turns, like too many others, on a secret or a hitch or a trick that’s artificially withheld for some part of the action and then disappointingly belabored after. In Some Girl(s), we eventually learn that the hero, a man apparently on an apology tour of former lovers, is actually researching a book about them; in The Mercy Seat, a couple having an affair is belatedly handed the excuse of September 11 to justify it; in The Money Shot, a Hollywood himbo tries to refresh his career by convincing a bewildered co-star to do a live sex scene. In each of these plays, once the twist is revealed, everything that came before is automatically recategorized as cheap distraction, and everything that comes after is necessarily anticlimactic. It’s as if the reason for writing has been turned inside out: The structure is the story, the drama there just to hold it up.
This is especially true in The Way We Get By, whose title should have been a warning. (It is barely distinguishable from such other LaBute titles as This Is How It Goes, The Shape of Things, The Distance From Here, and The Heart of the Matter.) For the first half we get an earful of the characters’ compulsive circumlocutions, necessitated not by their nature but by the suppressed facts of the plot. This doesn’t even make sense, because they know the twist; only we don’t. In any case, our not knowing makes the dialogue uninterpretable: Is it masking aggression, or is it aggression? We can only conclude that Doug and Beth are insane or stupid or both. That their verbal incapability is well observed (and, in this case, beautifully performed) is no help; such conversational feints are just as annoying onstage as they are in real life:
BETH: Anyway ... I just ... Nothing. Don’t worry about it.
DOUG: No, what?
BETH: It’s no big deal.
DOUG: So tell me then.
BETH: Forget it.
DOUG: Come on. Please.
I felt just like Doug for much of the play: So tell me then. Come on. Please. And yet, when LaBute responded to my mute screams, I quickly began to wish he hadn’t. If the setup were monumentally entertaining and the payoff profoundly engrossing, a trick like this might work, but the setup here is barely bearable (and to the extent it is, that’s mostly thanks to Sadoski and the director Leigh Silverman, who finds a million amusing ways to move the two characters around the wicker magazine bins and Winslow media console.) The payoff is nonexistent. Or rather, it is trite, a perfunctory wave at carpe diem: “That’s how people do it,” Doug says. “The way we get by. Play it safe or we wait a turn or, or … whatever. Or worse, we run away, we give up.” I’ll say.
The Way We Get By is at Second Stage Theatre through June 14.