THE BLOG

First Nighter: Neil LaBute's 'The Way We Get By' Doesn't Get By, Simon Callow Plays Transgender in 'Tuesday at Tesco's'

05/19/2015 11:02 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

The 36 Goldberg variations on the Bach harpsichord tune are copious, but apparently Neil LaBute wants to give those spins on a theme stiff competition. His theme: the battle of the sexes -- only with The Way We Get By, at Second Stage Theatre, he doesn't so much involve a man and a woman battling as he sets Doug (Thomas Sadoski, a favorite LaBute player) and Beth (Amanda Seyfried) bickering.

These young Bickersons have just had great sex at the apartment she shares with the unseen but compulsively organized Kim. He's alone and restlessly pacing the living room floor, guzzling direct from a bottle and thinking a few minutes of television might settle him. The noise from the shopping channel he turns on is so loud that he shuts it off instantly but too late not to have awakened her and put their 80-minute contretemps in motion.

The first thing that throws them into conflict is his devotion to a signed Star Trek T-shirt of his she's wearing. The second is his abruptly calling a halt to a bout of fellatio she's initiated. She doesn't understand why, if their initial sexual encounter was so heatedly successful, he wouldn't want to pursue a second opportunity. He explains that once is for fun but twice suggests a more serious relationship he believes they should think through.

As they follow each other around Neil Patel's version of a tidily comfortable New York apartment, they have the occasional sympatico lull but mostly they argue -- and argue even more intensely when LaBute reveals a connection between them that becomes a potential obstacle for their romantic bonding.

The revelation won't be explained here, but maybe it's acceptable to say that it threatens to turn the work into a modern-day update of John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. Well, okay, not really. Ford in his grave needn't resort to rapidly rotating, but he might want to emit a chuckle or two at this contemporary dilution of his bloody tragedy.

The major problem with The Way We Get By -- as Doug or Beth might say, it's major-major -- is that they're so insistently immature. The audience is expected, I think, to root for their getting through to each other. But they're both so unsophisticated in word and deed that the more appropriate response is wishing they'd listen to themselves and hear how unready either is for any lasting union. What else could anyone think when at a low point, their conversation consists of -- I only paraphrase slightly here -- "Shut up!" "You shut up!" "Shut up!" "You!" "You!" As the familiar saying goes, "Gimme a break."

It's probably not spoiling anyone's good time to say that Doug and Beth eventually reach an understanding and as a result go on a destructive celebration that, if nothing else does, confirms their need to grow up before they contemplate a genuine adult relationship.

Sadoski and Seyfried are unquestionably a handsome couple, and they give themselves over to the script -- including the half-sentences and overlapping utterances LaBute ladles in. Director Leigh Silverman surely does the best she can for them, but the likes of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne couldn't make this one credible. (Not that the fabled couple would ever have tried.)

At the end of the day, what I resent most is the word "we" in the title. Few patrons attending to this juvenalia would recognize it as their own way of getting by. LaBute does specify that playing it safe is the way we get by, although the title implies that much of their behavior is indicative of generally getting by. The insult to intelligent grown-ups stands. LaBute has often written strong plays about young adults. This isn't one of them.

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Simon Callow is not only a first-rate actor, he's an uncommonly practical one -- not to mention an excellent author. Read his recent memoir, A Life in Pieces, if it's outstanding writing about the theater you're after.

His practicality emerges in the number of solo shows he's put together to cover times when other theater, film or television work isn't immediately on the schedule. Dickens, Shakespeare -- he's surely impersonated them to great acclaim.

Now, he's added quite a different piece, at 59E59 Theatres: Tuesday's at Tesco's, which he didn't write -- Emmanuel Darley did, and Matthew Hurt and Sarah Vermande translated from the French. How different is it? Plenty, even if it picks up on one of the emerging stories of the year -- transgender men and women.

Oh, yes, that's how smart Callow is. He's wet a finger to test the zeitgeist and chosen to play Pauline -- formerly Paul -- who arrives on stage as dressed by set and costume designer Robin Don in modest suit with reddish top and as lighted by Chahine Yavroyan.

The blond Pauline chatters to the audience about the Tuesdays she prods her father, still intent on calling her Paul, to hit the local Tesco's for the week's shopping. She discusses the people she runs into and their treatment of her -- the checkout man she prefers for his not dissing her when the nearby checkout woman does. She has other observations on herself to pass along, and during the 75 minutes that she unburdens herself, often histrionically, she probably says more than she needs to say to land the harmful details about her difficult life.

Every once in a while, she breaks into a wild dance step. What sets her heels moving is the music played on a stage-left piano by Conor Mitchell. Paying no mind to Pauline at all, Mitchell appears to be composing a piano concerto. His pertinence to the focal subject matter is anyone's guess.

As reliable as ever under Simon Stokes's direction, Callow suggests Pauline's strengths, weaknesses and continual tribulations. In the day of Bruce Jenner's revelations, Pauline certainly adds provocative thought to the currently improving but not yet settled LGBT discussion.