The Austin Chronicle


Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Robert Faires, March 26, 2004, Arts

The Mercy Seat

The Blue Theater, through March 27

Running Time: 1 hr, 40 min

The footage projected at the back of the stage is enough to send your stomach into free fall, to make your muscles clench. The mounds of rubble and twisted metal, the streets choked with ash, the dazed civilians with makeshift masks, the overwhelmed emergency personnel: It is That Day. 9/11. And while 21/2 years have passed, just the projected images of it can generate a fresh rush of the shock, horror, grief, and incomprehensibility we felt at the time. The carpet of dust around the furniture signals that we're back then in Manhattan, and the glazed stare of the man on the sofa, oblivious to the ringing cell phone in his hand, suggests a familiar state. We can easily imagine the thoughts running through his head – all perhaps save one, the one on which this Neil LaBute play turns: that That Day is for him an opportunity.

You see, this man was supposed to be in the World Trade Center That Day. But he wasn't, and since he hasn't been in touch with his wife or his daughters or his office colleagues in the 18 hours since the towers fell, he is presumed to be among the victims. The only person who knows he's alive is the woman who lives in the loft where he's sitting, the woman he came to see instead of going to the towers, the woman with whom he's been having an affair for three years. And this unforeseen catastrophe has provided him with a window to leave behind his family, his job, and everything he hates and feels trapped by in his life to start a new existence with her. That is the opportunity he contemplates.

If you feel the gorge rising in your throat, you aren't alone. The idea that this man would use a monstrous human tragedy to abandon his family, subjecting them to profound grief, all to benefit himself, appalls the very woman he is considering doing this for. She assails him for failing to do "the decent thing ... the only thing to do," – let his wife know that he's alive and unharmed – and the friction between them over his actions at this moment fuels a series of accusations, recriminations, affronts, and excuses in which every aspect of their relationship is laid bare, from his resentment over the inferior position he holds at work to her humiliation at the dehumanizing position she endures during sex.

Unpleasant? To be sure, but then that's the way it is with Neil LaBute. As a writer, he likes to probe the cavities in our souls, the places where decay infects otherwise decent spirits. That's the spot where the unthinkable becomes thinkable, the unjustifiable is justified. In The Mercy Seat, as in the monologue play Bash, staged previously by the dirigo group, characters give in to dark, even cruel impulses that they strive to explain away. They are not malicious creatures by nature, but people whose personal needs fill their field of vision so completely that they can't see, much less feel, the needs of others. Dealing with their own desires or demons is all that matters, and it rationalizes whatever they do.

In Bash, LaBute tempered this self-absorption with appealing personalities that drew you in even as you wanted to pull away. Here, his only two characters, Ben and Abby, are abrasive, combative, and prone to taking cheap shots at each other. And in dirigo's production, neither Judson L. Jones nor Ellie McBride soften their edges. On the contrary, both find the competitive drive, the predatory instinct, that has led these two to success in business and no doubt into each other's bed. But just because they are not appealing does not mean they aren't compelling. They are like beasts in battle: Jones, who remains seated through almost the entire play, is a man paralyzed by conflicting desires but who, like a cornered bear, can still defend himself savagely. And he has to: McBride circles him like a bird of prey, goading him, taunting him, looking for the opening to get to his heart. Their conflict is primal – and yet restrained. Director Lowell Bartholomee keeps the proceedings focused and allows the situation itself to generate intensity.

The Mercy Seat takes us back to a moment in history in which selflessness has become mythologized. By showing us That Day through eyes of selfishness, the play makes us question what filled our own field of vision then and what fills it now.

Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.