Leave it to the perpetually controversial Neil LaBute to flesh it out and make it a play. The Mercy Seat is Down Every Street Productions' sophomore effort (the company premiered with a bang earlier this year with the dark, drug-drenched Tape). But, though it has its share of invigorating dialogue and a compelling performance by Patricia Carrier in the female lead, the piece may ultimately be unplayable.
Carrier plays Abby, who is the boss and, not coincidentally, the mistress of Ben, an unsympathetic monster played by an under-rehearsed John Hilleary. The play opens at 4 in the morning on September 12 in Abby's apartment a few blocks from Ground Zero. Though Scott Gordon's set design reveals no broken glass, we're to assume that Abby's windows have been blown out. There's a layer of dust across every surface and on the pair's clothes.
The grime is a metaphor for how these two feel. LaBute asks us to spend 90 intermissionless minutes with two self-absorbed people who admit that they feel shitty about themselves. They're forced to acknowledge the unfathomably tragic events of the previous day, but they're also caught up in the common plight of the classic narcissist: What does this mean for me?
What gets Abby's ire up is that Ben's cell phone keeps ringing. It's revealed in spurts that his wife and his two daughters are probably making the calls. He worked in the World Trade Center but was not in the building when the planes hit, having stopped by Abby's place for a serious chat that ended up with him receiving fellatio. His plan is to let his family think he's dead, opening up the possibility of quitting all earthly responsibilities and moving to Phoenix or someplace where he and Abby can start anew.
It's a despicable man who would ponder such a plot -- and I mean Ben, not LaBute, though the latter has to answer for it, too. How in the world is an audience made to care for a guy who'd rather desert his kids than let them know he's OK? There's no way, and LaBute's dastardly cleverness is trumped by this impossible challenge. I think the author's point is that many men disappear long before they die. But Hilleary's performance (which loses momentum when he seems to forget his lines) presents only the sketch of anything human.
Carrier's Abby is better played. The tension in Carrier's portrayal comes from the character's ambiguity; she's not sold on Ben's dream; in fact, you sense that at any moment she might call Ben's wife herself. She seems to have at least a dose of conscience. That's not to say Abby is saintly. She's as sharp-tongued as a Komodo dragon and has a knack for needling Ben's intelligence and sexual adequacy. In one of LaBute's quirkiest passages, Abby deconstructs the dubious intimacy of Ben's preference for having sex doggy style. It's no small achievement that Carrier pulls it off.
Beate Pettigrew's direction leaves more answers than questions: Why, for example, does Abby take Windex and paper towels to only half of her coffee table? And the damnable rhythm of the piece doesn't work. LaBute's at fault here, too, so we're left with two largely unlikable people bickering and then making up and then bickering again for an hour and a half. It can make for scintillating theater -- see Edward Albee's The Goat, for starters -- but The Mercy Seat never comes close to reaching the bar. It's profound only in what it could have been.