The Mercy Seat continues provocative playwright Neil LaBute’s early 2000s streak of intense, polarizing dramas that are heated and very much of the moment… and may be seen as dated in the present era.
I never saw this play performed, instead becoming aware of it sometime in 2004 when I placed an increased interest on LaBute’s work in preparation for directing The Shape Of Things at Hampshire College. The script focuses on a World Trade Center worker, Ben, who was coincidentally played by Hampshire alum Liev Schreiber in the original production. Ben happens to be away from the office on the faithful morning, and ends up at the home of his mistress, Abby, originally played by Sigourney Weaver. Ben discusses whether he wants to make the tragedy into an opportunity for him to run away from his existing life, believing that his family will think he has died. Abby tries to reason with him and take both sides of the argument, as they sit there in her apartment just one day after the attacks.
It would be interesting to know the production history of this play, as on the one hand it seems to have quickly dated, while on the other hand it continues to exist as a time capsule of a tense, uncertain time in US history when people didn’t know who to trust and couldn’t believe what had happened on that sunny Tuesday morning. And the US has moved so far away from that initial period of uncertainty — not in the best directions IMO — it sometimes seems like much longer than 13 years has passed.
Two weeks ago I traveled to Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre to catch a production of Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty, with a triple goal of finally seeing LaBute’s 2009 play, examining my current impressions of Mr. LaBute’s work — which once fascinated me so much that I directed one of his plays – and met him briefly in person here, and seeing how I currently feel about driving ____ distance in the name of the theatre, which was a frequent activity in my Bay Area life – and well chronicled in the earlier days of this blog. Since my impression of the play was ultimately mixed, and I had various life activities come up in the intervening two weeks, I delayed a post on the experience. UNTIL NOW. (last two words said in hyper-dramatic movie trailer voice.)
The play serves as the conclusion to LaBute’s trilogy about obsession with physical appearance, and I think that was where I found my primary problem. The characters in this play could be easily exchanged with those in the other two, and this one follows an identical template of: primary, sensitive guy plus secondary more abrasive guy paired with primary, mostly abrasive woman plus secondary more sensitive woman. (actually, the women’s roles are reversed in the middle play, Fat Pig, which I found to be the most compelling of the three.)
I didn’t feel like LaBute was saying anything new in this script, and frankly was surprised that initial reviews (one example is seen here) called the play kindler and gentler than his earlier work. I’m not sure if the energetic but low-tech production (little emphasis on set and lighting effects, primary focus on characterization) contributed to this impression. The featured actors were clearly committed and had an easygoing charm, with two of the actors an offstage real-life couple. But the final impression was a bit too “eh…” for my taste, and I don’t know if I’ll be drawn to additional LaBute works.