A Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Mercy Seat"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Larry Stark

"The Mercy Seat"

by Neil LaBute
Directed by Eric Engel

Scenic Design by Brynna Bloomfield
Lighting Design by Eleanor Moore
Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley
Assistant to The Director Shayna Ross
Production Manager Nerys Powell
Assistant Stage Manager Jaime L. Orsini
Production Stage Manager Nerys Powell

Abby Prescott.................Paula Plum
Ben Harcourt............Robert Pemberton

" I canít help thinking he could have hung this play on any hanger, a car accident, a plane crash. "
Beverly Creasey on THE MERCY SEAT

" I canít help feeling that despite his humanitarian intentions he is not-so-secretly relishing every wounding word, every bashing or murder, every betrayal inspired and blessed by [his muse] St. Rhino "
Carl A. Rossi on THE MERCY SEAT

"Two years ago, I attended the Coyote Theatreís production of Neil LaButeís BASH, three one-acters each dealing with a murder, told from the killerís point of view and all I felt was cold disgust --- not for the three killers, but for the playwright who created them --- and I had seen the film version of his misogynistic IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, so I came to SpeakEasyís production of THE SHAPE OF THINGS with a fair idea of what to expect --- and I wasnít wrong. " Carl A. Rossi on THE SHAPE OF THING "A real test of this script and its characters would be to replace the iconic 9/11 with a less glamorous disaster, like a commuter train crash, and see if anyone paid serious attention. "
Will Stackman on THE MERCY SEAT

" His characters -- both nasty and nice -- either outright lie or divulge such harsh realities you wish they Had lied."
Susan Daniels on THE SHAPE OF THINGS

" For most of the two hours, this collision of a new girl with long-standing friends, and the re-arrangement of their past compromises, could be the banal stuff of an old B-movie 'Women's Picture' --- "

" It is both significant and irrelevant that all the speakers in these plays are Mormon --- uprightly upwardly mobile upper-middle slightly special citizens of a sect that is the ultimate in Christian smug. As such, they embody here that silent moral majority's role-definitions for male and female. "

" By the end, if we did not exactly sympathize with her, we understood her. And that was unsettling enough. "
Stephen A. Fulchino on BASH: LATTER DAY PLAYS

What is it about Neil LaBute's work that makes critics* squirm? Why do they run to The Vertical Pronoun, reviewing themselves rather than the plays? Is it only that most of his plays have surprise plot-twists that reviewers are reluctant to reveal? Is it because his monsters, struggling never successfully not to reveal themselves, are so specifically ordinary they might easily be sitting in the seat next to you --- or in your own seat itself? Is it that despite their repeated alibis they stand on unadorned sets where though they try they cannot hide? Is it that these very specifically life-like ordinary sinners are mere metaphors for Martha Stewart, for the Arthur Andersen accountants and their clients, and for those Vulcans querrulously melting because someone threw the cold water of truth at them in the glare of a Congressional hearing? Is it just that Neil LaBute's compact little plays are too damn huge for any reviewer to describe accurately?
But let me try.....

Here Abby and Ben are as perfectly suited for a "happily ever after" life together as, say, George & Martha in "Virginia Woolf" --- but they have been given a gift by fate: the married partner can stay presumed dead on 9/12 and escape wife, children, mortgage and any entangling legal difficulties. He can turn his three-year office affair with the chair-woman of his department into youth's dream of eternal romance --- just the way Janet Leigh's character did in "Psycho", right? Well, their guilty secret isn't a non-existent baby or a non-existent mom --- it's the sudden, horrifying realization that the gift won't change anything about themselves, that they'll be stuck together, for better or worse or probably worst, through the rest of all eternity with nothing but the glue of their very kinky sex holding them together.

Again and again through the pair's flaming argument over what to do, Robert Pemberton's Ben is called out of his hopes by a logical extension of what he's just said, only to wimp out with a surprised "Well, no....I didn't mean That, exactly..." He is a self-admitted fuck-up (If that phrase offends you, don't pay for a ticket!) trying to believe "I'd spend the rest of my life as a lumberjack, if only I could spend it with you."

But Paula Plum's Abby is used to power and control, and constantly pushes for an honesty and truth that are always destructive. An unmarried business-woman unhappily successful, she comes suddenly face to face with her only half-fulfilled needs and the bleak prospect that what was somewhat useful as an affair looks more and more like a "No Exit" nightmare as a marriage. Again and again she tries to force her rubber-backboned lover to commit to a single, free, firm decision.

LaBute's technique is always to push the germ of a moral dilemma to ultimate extremes. Old melodramas and film-noir are filled with amnesiac survivors of wrecks; here his bitchy, imperfect people scream and claw at one another over their petty personal problems in an illicit love-nest from which twin emptinesses can be gazed at through a window stage-left. When Plum enters, miffed that she and not he can show her survivor's face in shopping forays, it's the ashes of three thousand other lives she shakes from her coat.

LaBute's characters are small, simple, everyday people who often thoughtlessly commit unspeakable crimes of selfishness --- and reflect our morally compromised macrocosm in every sentence. He offers no one a way out, no ray of hope, no alternative life-style. Therein the patient must minister to himself.


*And audiences as well.
Paula Plum, commenting on a few departed patrons, remarked
"If someone doesn't walk out on us, we're not doing it right!"
"The Mercy Seat" (19 March - 17 April)
140 Clarendon Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 437-772

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