"The Mercy Seat"
Stamford Theatre Works, Stamford
Leave it to playwright Neil LaBute to overturn the time-honored values—or pretended values. Never mind that our reactions to 9/11 ought to be overwhelming horror, with grief for those who lost friends and relatives. In this drama, now in production at Stamford Theatre Works, LaBute moves beneath the obvious—the clichés, if you will—to reveal those uncomfortable, self-centered thoughts and feelings which motivate us all. Thus disclosed, LaBute’s characters are never very nice people, and “The Mercy Seat” runs true to form.
LaBute uses 9/11 as a backdrop, as he explores an edgy, walk-on-eggshells relationship. The story takes place just a day after the Twin Towers collapse. Ben, a young Wall Street employee, has spent the night with his lover Abby (who is 12 years older and also his boss). Through Abby’s window, Ben can see the nearby debacle. (The playwright never makes use of this proximity to Ground Zero, and its consequential health effects, which could have been a critical point.)
Ben had been due at a meeting in one Tower, but never made it because of a quick side trip to Abby’s apartment. Thus the cataclysmic event provides an escape, a chance for a new life. Presumed dead, he could avoid family responsibilities and run away with Abby. But Abby, in her turn, wants Ben to shape up and assume family obligations, before she will comply.
The premise is fascinating, but the execution something else. Despite Steve Karp’s ever-skillful direction, and Kenneth A. Larson’s charming set, the story seems to lag, to prove both tedious and confusing. Matthew Fraley, as Ben, initially comes across as flat, gathering steam slowly. Eliza Foss, who is indeed comfortable in Abby’s skin, is too often left to carry the burden. (Can it be that we are in thrall to the earlier New York production, with the incomparable Liev Schreiber and Sigourney Weaver?)
In any event, the story never clearly reveals Ben’s intentions. Does he really want to live out his life with Abby? What is the attraction between the two? For Abby, the appeal of a young stud is fairly obvious. But what, for Ben, would be the attraction of the older woman, once the power base is gone? In any event, as they slam the ball back and forth over the net, as it were, intentions seem to shift constantly, leaving the viewer giddy and confused.
Perhaps LaBute has it right after all, and “The Mercy Seat” is a sign of the times. We are all giddy and confused in today’s world.
-- -Irene Backalenick
Sept. 21, 2008