The Way We Get By by Neil LaBute is, well, cute. Yep, the great misanthrope of American theater and film, has written a play that is “cute.” I’m not being sarcastic here. No deaf women are tormented, no students are destroyed by a girlfriend’s betrayal, and no heavy women are the subject of ridicule. The leads are attractive (a little “classic LaBute” slips in when Beth (Sophia Brown) reveals the difficulties inherent in being unusually attractive) and likeable overall. Andrew Rea’s Doug is a bit dithering, as so many of LaBute’s men can be at times, but in an endearing way. In short, LaBute has a heart, and is undeniably romantic somewhere deep inside his dark exterior.
Maybe because of a lack of real conflict, the play seems a bit slight, but I enjoyed it a lot, especially director Nancy Bell’s reading of it. Sometimes it’s difficult for an audience to see a director’s influence on a production, and that’s not a weakness if the director chooses to conceal herself beneath the material. I do mean the following as a compliment: Beth reminds me of Bell in some of the mannerisms and speech patterns Bell uses when she acts. This insight into her own work demonstrates a remarkable self-knowledge that shows in her direction. The two characters pick up each other’s rhythms so their tone is conversational and their discomfort palpable.
As far as the work itself is concerned, a two-hander can be almost as tough to review as a one-person show, but that isn’t a problem here. While this is not a profound piece, it is unique among LaBute’s works (note, I’m not familiar with all of them). The actors’ chemistry and timing are impeccable as they dance on the edge of attraction throughout this well-written and acted piece. It’s safe to say that the playwright seems to respect his characters for the most part, so the audience doesn’t get the sense that LaBute is being snide about them.
We meet Doug as he staggers from an unseen bedroom into the living area of Beth’s apartment. Patrick Huber has worked a small miracle with the intimate Gaslight Theatre stage. It looks like a place one would actually want to live. He even managed to fit in a full-sized refrigerator and tasteful furnishings and décor. We learn later that Beth lives here with a roommate “Kim,” who owns most of the books, lamps and bric-a-brac, and her parents own the apartment. That answers the question of how she could afford this space in New York City. Doug has arisen early (or late, depending on your point of view). It soon becomes clear he and Beth had a one-night stand after a drunken wedding reception. He is shortly joined by her, and just as Doug doesn’t seem to have a cruel streak like many LaBute men, she is a young woman who is decidedly different from LaBute’s characteristic ball-busting females.
Awkwardness ensues as each tries to feel out the other on the events of the night before. There are funny lines and relatable situations as this couple gets to know each other post-coitus. At first, it seems he’s more interested in his Star Wars t-shirt (“it’s vintage”) that she has thrown on to come out of the bedroom than he is in her. It is symbolic of his refusal to “adult,” a word that has lately been “verbed” by social media.
Doug isn’t just boyish; he’s a boy at heart, albeit sensitive to his language where women are concerned. He tells Beth she looks “wonderful,” then hastens to ask if it’s “okay to say that.” For her part, Beth is in a vulnerable place emotionally, and as the conversation continues, we get a surprise about halfway through. So, are they “meant” to be together, whatever that may mean, or is this destined to just be a fleeting attraction? After all, lying to each other, or at least not telling the whole truth is “the way we get by.”
I doubt that slotting this play into the season at this time of year is an accident; rather, it is a funny Valentine to us, with love or something like it, from, of all people, Neil LaBute.
The Way We Get By runs through Feb. 26, 2017 at the Gaslight Theatre. You may contact www.stlas.org for further information.