May 23, 2015

"The Way We Get By" and "What I Did Last Summer" Go Outside Their Comfort Zones

There’s a comfort in the familiar that makes it’s hard to try something new, particularly when the rewards roll in for doing the same old thing. So although I have mixed feelings about the latest works by the playwright Neil LaBute and the actress Kristine Nielsen, I admire their willingness to step outside their comfort zones with the recently-opened shows The Way We Get By and What I Did Last Summer.

LaBute’s stage rep was made with anti-romcom plays like The Shape of Things and Fat Pig in which someone seems to fall for someone else but then cruelly demeans the feigned object of that affection. But—spoiler alert—LaBute takes love seriously in The Way We Get By, which opened Wednesday at Second Stage Theatre's Tony Kiser Theatre. 

A two-hander, it opens in the middle of the night after two people have hooked up at a party, retreated to her place and indulged in some hot sex. Now he, Doug, is up and uneasily poking around the apartment while she, Beth, sleeps until he clumsily wakes her and they embark on a discussion about what will come next.

It’s the usual awkward—and, to be honest, somewhat boring—banter but, after almost an hour of it, LaBute springs an additional complication that doesn’t ring quite true but still livens things up a bit until the play ends about 20 minutes later.

Thomas Sadoski, so good in so many plays over the years, has been doing TV stuff for the past four years. Now, he’s returned looking more buff than I remember but, alas, his stage chops don’t seem to be as tight as his abs. 

Under Leigh Silverman’s lax direction, he seriously overacted the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw the show, shouting and waving his arms in an apparent, but futile, effort to make more of his thinly-drawn character.

Beth is played by Amanda Seyfried, who has done lots of TV and movies (most notably playing Meryl Streep’s daughter in “Mamma Mia!” and Cosette in “Les Misérables”) but is making her stage debut with The Way We Get By. She’s naturally charming and has a surprisingly easy stage presence (click here to read a profile of her) but the script doesn’t really give her a lot to work with either.

The play's moral seems to be that love can conquer all. That might be a revelation for LaBute, but it’s less so for the rest of us. 

We’ve also seen before the character that Nielsen plays in the revival of A.R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer, which opened at Signature Theater Company last Sunday.  

Nielsen is known for a campy comedic style, marked by lavish eye rolls, fluttery hand gestures and droll line readings.  But, with the occasional lapse here and there, she reigns in those tics even though her character in Gurney’s 1981 play is Anna Trumbull, the town eccentric in a Waspy vacation community on the shores of Lake Erie during World War II. 

Most of the adult men are still away fighting the war in the summer of 1945 and their teenaged sons are a bit more rambunctious than they might have been if their dads were home.

One, 15 year-old Charlie Higgins (the sweet-faced Noah Galvin,) falls under the spell of Anna’s bohemian lifestyle (she lives alone in the woods in a house that is rumored to have been given to her by a married lover) and her insistence that he explore his artistic impulses.  As happens in all such stories, reality intrudes, secrets are revealed and life lessons learned.

Director Jim Simpson has combined our lingering nostalgia for that time (complete with songs from the era and Claudia Brown’s period-perfect costumes) with modern day meta-theatrics (stage directions and some lines of dialog are projected on scrims, as though the story is being written as we see it; a live drummer sits stage right, punctuating the action with appropriate sound effects). 

The acting is first rate and although I confess to missing some of Nielsen’s usual shtick, she is ultimately heartbreaking as a woman whose spirit yearns to be freer than society will allow it to be. Gurney remains in his comfort zone but it's still a sweet evening. 

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