“Everybody should fall in love. It’s like voting: It’s a right we all should have,” Jo’s co-worker says to her in “Nice Girl,” a play by Melissa Ross at Labyrinth Theater that, like “The Way We Get By” by Neil LaBute at Second Stage, is about unlikely/unlucky people falling awkwardly in love.
Both plays — the first largely a drama with many funny moments; the other a comedy with some touching moments — remind me of specific older love stories about regular Joes, at least at their start. Both have plot twists I could have done without. But the flaws in both scripts are masked by smooth direction (by two women directors), and by some lovely performances by the would-be couples — Amanda Seyfried and Thomas Sadoski in “The Way We Get By,” and Kathryn Kates and Nick Cordero (as well as the two other performers) in “Nice Girl.”
“Nice Girl” feels initially like almost an update of “Marty,” Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning 1955 film about a middle-aged butcher who lives with his mother and has given up on love…until he meets a schoolteacher that his friends do not consider a prize. The guy in “Nice Girl,” Donny (Nick Cordero) is also a butcher. But Ross’s play, which takes place in 1984, is from the point of view of the woman, a 38-year-old secretary named Jo (Kathryn Kates) who lives with her mother Francine (Diane Davis) and has given up on the idea of love…until at a visit at the butcher shop, Donny, a man with whom she went to high school, starts expressing interest in her. Tentatively, sweetly, Donny invites Jo to be his date at their forthcoming 20th high school reunion. Then things get complicated – we discover something about him which I know I am not supposed to tell you.
Although Donny was big man on campus back in high school, and Jo was…nice (an adjective used throughout the play, with shifting nuances, none very complimentary), they turn out to have much in common now, in addition to their obvious shared working/middle class Boston suburban roots (with accents to match.) Both have jobs that they feel are beneath them. Both went to college – Jo to Radcliffe – but both dropped out, Jo to take care of her dying father, Donny to marry his pregnant high school sweetheart. Now Jo feels stuck with her needy, manipulative mother. Donny and his (unseen) wife are separated, heading for divorce. “My kid, my oldest,” Donny tells Jo, “he’s going to be eighteen and he looks at me like ‘Please God don’t let me turn out like that.’ I know it ‘cause I looked at my old man the same way. And I don’t blame him. I don’t want to be me much neither.” For both Donny and Josephine, the disappointments in their life seem synonymous, or at least exactly parallel, with their disappointments in love.
Cordero made a splash in “Bullets Over Broadway” as the talented if murderous gangster, and recently appeared as a villainous superhero in “Brooklynite,” but here he credibly portrays a more low-key character in Donny. Diane Davis, also a Broadway veteran, is often touching as Jo, and her scenes together with Donny feel rich and poignant in unexpressed emotion. If her oft-stated regrets start feeling uncomfortably like an annoying self-pity, “Nice Girl” is rescued from such wallowing by the presence of two other characters, and the fabulous actresses who portray them. Diane Davis as Jo’s mother Francine and Liv Rooth as Jo’s supportive big-haired, divorced co-worker Sherry at first seem little more than sitcom stereotypes. But the playwright winds up investing them with a level of complexity and empathy that, intentionally or not, helps us broaden our definition of love. I suspect it’s unintentional; family seems to exist mostly to get in the way of romantic love in “Nice Girl” (and more obliquely in “The Way We Get By.”) The love between mother and daughter, and between friends (even co-workers), has a value that is heralded in few if any love songs – and fewer movies or plays.
“The Way We Get By” is about the awkward aftermath of a hookup, which, at least for the first half, feels inspired by Terrence McNally’s “Frankie and Johnny at the Clare de Lune,” except that the two actors here couldn’t be more glamorous. The two-character comedy features the sexy actor Thomas Sadoski (Reasons to Be Pretty, The Newsroom) in fine neurotic form as Doug, a man-boy in his 30s who still wears (and cherishes!) a Star Wars t-shirt that he bought at Comic-Con signed by the actor who played R2-D2. He is alarmed to see that his conquest for the night, Beth – portrayed by the beautiful star Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserable, Mamma Mia, Big Love), making her stage debut – has put on his t-shirt. For her part, Beth “got all freaked out” when she saw that Doug was no longer beside her in bed, fearing he had left. But he was just restlessly puttering around in the apartment. He tries to be reassuring: “I wouldn’t leave without that!” he says, pointing to the Star Wars t-shirt she is wearing.
Seyfried and Sadoski may sound like a circus act, but over the course of the 70-minute play that takes place in a single night, they volley Neil LaBute’s dialogue like tennis pros, a testament to Leigh Silverman’s first-rate direction.
Exactly halfway through the play, we learn that theirs was not a conventional one-night stand – that in fact Doug and Beth know one another. That’s all I’ll say about it, except that it’s a doozy, and makes us feel misled, given the use of “we” in the play’s title, and the way the show is being marketed – Beth and Doug have an “awkward encounter after spending one hot night together following a drunken wedding reception they attend.” No, this is not a one-night stand and, no, it’s too particular to stand in for all one-night stands. Perhaps it is LaBute’s point that love can overcome even the most peculiar of circumstances – or at least he hopes it can.
And that is the operative word in both these plays – hope. In “Nice Girl,” the hope for a redeeming romantic love is a faint light through the bleakness. In “The Way We Get By,” it’s preposterously bright (and therefore more suspect.) But both plays work better than they should because we sit there hoping that this hope is real – and because we fall at least a little in love with the characters…and (let’s face it) the performers who play them.
Labyrinth at the Bank Street Theater, 155 Bank Street
By Melissa Ross; directed by Mimi O’Donnell; sets by David Meyer; costumes by Emily Rebholz; lighting by Japhy Weideman; music and sound by Ryan Rumery
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes, including one intermission.
Cast: Nick Cordero (Donny), Diane Davis (Josephine Rosen), Kathryn Kates (Francine Rosen) and Liv Rooth (Sherry).
Nice Girl is scheduled to run through June 14.
The Way We Get By
Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street.
By Neil LaBute; directed by Leigh Silverman; sets by Neil Patel; costumes by Emily Rebholz; lighting by Matt Frey; sound by Bart Fasbender
Cast: Thomas Sadoski (Doug) and Amanda Seyfried (Beth).
Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission.
The Way We Get By is scheduled to run through June 21.