Monday, June 8, 2015

Off-Broadway Reviews—"The Way We Get By," "Permission"

The Way We Get By
Written by Neil LaBute; directed by Leigh Silverman
Closes June 21, 2015
Second Stage Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Written by Robert Askins; directed by Alex Timbers
Closes June 14, 2015
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, New York, NY

Seyfried and Sadoski in The Way We Get By (photo: Joan Marcus)
Playwright Neil LaBute has made a career out of random shocks, but his latest The Way We Get By makes it look as if the well is running dry. Positioned somewhere between earlier taboo-busters as Wrecks and Fat Pig and recent LaBute-lite works like Reasons to Be Pretty, the new play is pleasantly bland but ultimately forgettable.

After covering incest with Wrecks, LaBute kinda sorta returns to the subject with his two-hander about the aftermath of a one-night stand between Doug and Beth, twenty-somethings who tiptoe around each other the next morning until they finally confront an inescapable fact that will impact their decision to become a couple. For 80 minutes, they sift through their feelings, fears and personal histories, all to little avail because, in LaBute's hands, their story has all the urgency and excitement of watching the mirowave heat up one's leftovers. 

Lame jokes about Doug's Star Wars t-shirt (which Beth wears after their night of sex) and Beth's annoying unseen roommate garner easy chuckles, but the psychology of two people unsure of where they stand in their relationship is bypassed for facile moments like Doug guiltily stopping Beth from going down on him, even though they just had a wild night of satisfying sex. 

LaBute's facility with dialogue sounds, in its hemming and hawing, like twenty-somethings earnestly trying to break through their inarticulateness, while Amanda Seyfried and Thomas Sadoski give engaged and engaging performances. Leigh Silverman adroitly directs on Neil Patel's perfect apartment set, but Doug and Beth's morning-after predicament remains less than earth-shattering.

The cast of Permission (photo: Jenny Anderson)
Permission emanates from the pen of Texan playwright Robert Askins, who wrote the Tony-nominated Hand to God. Askins undoubtedly knows the people about whom he writes, and he has a genuinely skewered perspective: but Hand to God trafficked in juvenile humor and Permission unfortunately follows suit.

Friends Eric and Zach and their wives Cynthia and Michelle are eating dinner at Zach's home:  when Eric and Cynthia see Zach spanking Michelle for percevied indiscretions, they discover that CDD, Christian Domestic Discipline, is being practiced and start using it themselves. Eric is also interested in Jeanie, his cute student assistant at the local college where he is acting head of the Computer Science department, and soon finds himself juggling a willingly disciplined Cynthia, a reluctantly discplining Zach and a confused Jeanie, who believes she's joining a swinging marriage cult after her tryst with Eric.

As in Hand to God, Askins treats a valid comic subject in a trashy way; the earlier play copped cheap laughs from its foul-mouthed hand puppet, and Permission is no less risible. Rather than explore the mingling of religion, patriarchy, sexual pleasure and hypocrisy in a serious but amusing way, Askins again reverts to the lowest common denominator with glib jokes about things like gluten, kale, Facebook and Matlock reruns. 

Director Thomas Kail plays into the frivolity by staging the play like a sitcom, letting the audience chuckle at rather than with these stick figures. Only Nicole Lowrance's performance shows she's aware that the play should have multiple layers: her Michelle is strong, smart, sexy and sympathetic. But for the most part, Elizabeth Reaser's Cynthia, Justin Bartha's Eric, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe's Zach and Talene Monahon's Jeanie approach caricature. Permission ends up lacking the courage of its convictions, preferring cheap laughs to stinging adult satire.

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