When I hear mention of a new work from playwright Neil LaBute a number of thoughts cross my mind: dramatic tension, provocation, psychological twists, bristling dialogue. Romantic comedy would not, however, be part of this list. This fact alone may entice some theatergoers to check out his new play The Way We Get By. After all, I can't be the only one who enjoys LaBute's work even when he ruffles my feathers. As is usual with the prolific playwright and director, we soon discover he's given us much more to chew on than meets the eye.
St. Louis Actors' Studio's surprisingly charming production introduces us to Doug and Beth, two adults in their mid to late twenties who hooked up last night. At the open, Doug stumbles into the living area from the bedroom, unsure of his surroundings and, frankly, what he should do next. Beth soon joins him and we learn that the two have known each other for some time. In fact, Beth recalls most of Doug's numerous ex-girlfriends. But, for what we learn are very good reasons, they've never dated or hooked up before.
The story, which at first seems just another "morning after" romantic comedy, takes a few somewhat surprising but plausible twists as Doug and Beth work to express their long-held feelings. More importantly, they have to decide how and whether they want to move forward as a couple. The extended discussion is by turns comic, sexy, awkward, uncomfortable, and ultimately, hopeful.
Sophia Brown, as Beth, and Andrew Rea, as Doug, are well matched as the young couple, and the tension between the two is believable and compelling. Brown is flirtatious and empowered, both confident and conflicted by her ability to attract a sexual partner. Rea is clearly a bit of a playboy, but shows his insecurity by revealing that he is interested in much more than a one-night stand with Beth. What makes the show so enjoyable, in fact, is the common desire to consider a relationship that they share but are equally frightened to state.
Beth and Doug are genuinely likeable characters: good looking, intelligent, interesting, and well adjusted. They're not too clichéd, relatable, and recognizable; plus they're caught in a very clever and mostly unexplored conundrum that's rife with comedic possibility. As importantly, the situation they are working through shares the hallmarks of all romances that start under an auspicious star yet refuse to hide in the shadows.
The actors roam through their conflicting feelings with logically illogical precision, allowing their movements, posture, and emotions to react in the moment. LaBute has scripted the show in a way that allows flexibility in interpretation, and director Nancy Bell finds focus points in the sub-context and intention behind each line. She and the actors cleverly mete out each new piece of information: a pillow fight turns nearly romantic until history and possibility cross paths; a kiss leads to foreplay and then social conventions prompt questions of their own. LaBute's ability to construct situations and explore them through dialogue is deftly countered by Brown and Rea's commitment to following the path.
All that enjoyable exploration aside, the script is, frankly, about twenty minutes too long, most of that filled with half-stated thoughts, stuttered hesitations, and the repetition of ideas. Though the dialogue is witty and well crafted and the story arc completed with a hopeful touch, it's not LaBute's best effort. Luckily, star-making performances by Brown and Rea ensure that even those extra twenty minutes are thoroughly entertaining. The two have strong chemistry on-stage and imbue their characters with believable motivation and emotion. They manage to find meaning and intent in awkward reactions, half-spoken phrases, and uncertain pauses, a credit to director Bell and the two actors.
St. Louis Actors' Studio has a close, collaborative relationship with Neil LaBute and the venture consistently produces worthwhile results. Both the playwright and the company are comfortable broaching uncomfortable subjects and possibilities with a shared commitment to "seeing where this goes." The results are always entertaining and sometimes spectacular and the company's current production adds to the successful pairing.
The Way We Get By, running through February 26, 2017 at St. Louis Actors' Studio, is not without its cringe-worthy moments and there are a few scenes where you may feel like prodding the actors to get on with it already. But it's a compelling contemporary romantic comedy with enough twists and turns to mark it as a LaBute show and captivating performances to keep you entertained.