As you take your seat at the Second Stage Theatre to see “The Way We Get By,” you can’t help being wowed by Neil Patel’s stylish, detailed set of a New York apartment, with its tasteful cream-and-brown contemporary décor flecked with burnt orange accents.
Yet if you look closely, the place is a tad too immaculate. The mail lives neatly in a wall caddy by the door. The throw pillows on the sofa have not been thrown at all, but placed just so. The wicker storage bins, perhaps from West Elm, have been meticulously labeled.
This being another finely-etched social dramedy by Neil LaBute, it’s a safe bet that this tidy universe will completely unravel by the final curtain. A nagging sense of foreboding is palpable.
And that’s just for starters. Under the taut direction of Leigh Silverman, the combustive two-hander, which unfolds real-time over 90 minutes, doles out the drama in tantalizing bites, never quite satisfying yet keeping us hungry for the next mouthful. It’s the kind of play where an ordinary exposition point becomes an intriguing plot morsel.
It is just before dawn. A young man we later learn is named Doug (Thomas Sadoski) emerges from a bedroom in his boxer shorts, groggy and dazed, fumbling around a dark apartment that is not his own. Shortly after Beth (Hollywood “it” girl Amanda Seyfried) joins him in the living room, we deduce that they had a boozy hookup the night before. Apparently, the duo met at a wedding reception, and now must gingerly negotiate the dreaded morning-after minefield.
Sure, most of us have seen — even lived — this should-I-stay-or-should-I-go scenario plenty of times. But LaBute manages to deftly inject just enough rich details and kinks to make it feel fresh. We soon learn this is no random hookup. In fact, Doug and Beth have met before. Are they long-ago lovers? Is one of them a best friend’s spouse? Does Doug stick around? Revealing too much would spoil the fun.
A scruffy Sadoski, at times bare-chested or wearing a vintage “Star Wars” T-shirt, portrays the agitated yet resolute Doug with nuanced sensitivity. Completely at ease here, the actor boasts an impressive resumé of similar dark character studies, like “Reckless,” “Other Desert Cities,” and another LaBute play, “Reasons to Be Pretty.” HBO fans will recognize him from “The Newsroom.”
The big surprise of the evening is Seyfried, whose Playbill bio lists zero theater credits and who has admitted to stage fright. We loved her in “Mean Girls” and the film versions of two Broadway classics, “Mamma Mia!” and “Les Misérables.” Turns out she’s just as affecting onstage, skillfully delivering LaBute’s rhythmic, pointed dialogue and generating real sparks with Sadoski, even when standing some 15 feet apart, which they do often throughout the piece.
“The Way We Get By,” which is less misanthropic and caustic than LaBute’s previous works, has much to say about the elastic nature of desire, seizing the moment, and getting what we want. How many times, for example, have we regretted not mustering the nerve to approach that hottie who smiled at us?
“That’s the way we get by,” Doug says, begging Beth to take a chance on him before the moment is lost forever. “Play it safe or wait a turn or… worse. We run away. We give up.” Clearly, he’s had his fill of just getting by.
The gorgeous Beth, weary of the countless men who lust after her hot body, also yearns for something true. “I need someone who wants me,” she says. “I need somebody to put up a fuss. For me.”
Although Beth’s roommate, Kim, is not physically there, her presence is deeply felt. She owns all the furniture and has labeled, in addition to those wicker bins, her food items in the kitchen, even the bottled Smartwater. She keeps a strict TV viewing schedule and insists Beth ask permission to DVR a show. This OCD-addled control freak represents the constraints put on by society that keep us from exploring — and realizing — our better selves.
Kim will not be pleased when she returns home.
THE WAY WE GET BY | Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St. | Through Jun. 14: Tue.-Fri. at 7 p.m.; Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m. | $60-$125 at telecharge.com or 212-246-4422 | 90 mins., no intermission