The Mercy Seat

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Monday Mar 22, 2004
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The sound of a ringing cell phone is the anxious "leif motif" to “The Mercy Seat,” Neil LaBute’s drama set on the morning after the planes struck the World Trade Center Towers. The phone belongs to Ben, a man who sits shell-shocked on a sofa oblivious, it seems, to its droning and the scenes of destruction that fill the flat screen television monitor sitting across the room.

The caller is Ben’s anxious wife, attempting to contact him to learn of his fate in the desperate confusion of that morning after; but Ben doesn’t answer because he’s traumatized by loss of his friends and colleagues; rather he’s in the first phase of executing a plan, one that would give him the chance to lose his current identity and take on another, like a character out of a Patricia Highsmith novel.

To do this he needs the assistance of Abby, his current lover who is his superior at the company where he works and 12 years his senior. They need to conspire in order to fulfill a romantic dream – to put their messy New York life behind them and get a fresh start someplace else. For Ben and Abby, 9/11 has given them new meaning to the old adage of one door closing and another one opening. It is, as they each call it, their meal ticket. “This is it,” one tells the other. “This is the moment, our moment,”

But at what cost? That’s the question that propels them to argue, chide, belittle, and nastily come to terms with the opportunity this tragedy presents to them. Abby is concerned with the impropriety of it all, of Ben using the tragedy for his own ends, and the enormous cost for her to be with the man she loves. For Ben the choice is equally daunting: he must leave his wife and daughters behind with the prospect of never seeing them again. Should he sacrifice this for the woman he loves and the promise of a new start, or answer the phone and tell his wife he’s safe, but shaken by the tragedy he nearly escaped from?

After 90-minutes of listening to LaBute’s hyped-up moral quandary, I wanted to climb on the stage and answer that damn cell phone myself. It would have at least put an end to the drone of these two unpleasant characters locked in an argument likely to leave audiences not only unsympathetic to their dilemma, but bored (and a bit appalled) by their self-obsession in the face of tragedy.

Anyone familiar with Labute’s previous work (“Bash” on stage, “In the Company of Men” on film, and “The Shape of Things” both on stage and film) knows that he likes to put the audience on the spot, and push their notion of compassion for his often morally compromised characters. What do we feel for the 20-something Medea who has killed her son at the end of one of the playlets in “Bash?” Or of the arrogant, sexy businessman willing to toy with the affections of a mute secretary in “In the Company of Men?” Here the moral debate is pumped up considerably by LaBute’s setting it at such an emotionally devastating moment; but, in the end, what is the point? The personal dynamic plays itself out pretty much as it would have if the planes hadn’t hit the buildings; and what transpires is a bloated, end-of-a-love-affair drama.

Certainly some of the problem comes with Eric C. Engel’s miscalculated production, which allows his actors, Robert Pemberton and Paula Plum, to go after each other in such a heated fashion that you wonder how they could have stayed together for any length of time without a restraining order or two. Granted much of their anxiety comes from the heightened emotions of the day, and their proximity to the Trade Towers themselves (exhibited in the dust that Abby shakes from her coat when she returns from a store.) But what’s missing is any sense of tenderness between them that would convince you that there’s any emotional substance to their relationship. They do embrace towards the end, but there’s barely a sense of affection between them; or even the human connection that would present itself at moments like these.

Instead they rant on a variety of subjects as if in a therapist’s office: his lack of heroism, her realization that she’s been sexually harassing him for the duration of their affair, and the not-so-hidden meaning behind their standard sexual position that she considers humiliating. Little, it appears, is left unsaid. Apparently director Engel didn’t have enough of this banter with “The Last 5 Years,” his equally numbing staging of another free-falling relationship at the SpeakEasy Stage recently. Here Plum shows that she’s a resourceful actress with a command for the withering one-liner; while Pemberton expresses a lost boy quality convincingly enough, though he’s physically too old for the part. They look like contemporaries; even worse there’s little chemistry between them, making the play’s resolution a foregone conclusion.

And why was the production staged in the round, with two rows of the audience placed behind the stage? Their presence is a surprising miscalculation, especially when some nodded off in full view of the main house. Even more telling, though, was how their presence effected the blocking, forcing Engel to stage much of the action with either actor standing with their backs to a large portion of the house. It became, after awhile, a play about their backs (first hers, than his) and made the drama static and one-sided. Nor did Brynna Bloomfield’s set design inform the audience of Abby’s loft’s proximity to Ground Zero. There are clues: Plum enters covered in dust, and Pemberton stares out the window at the disaster; but there’s no physical sense of their immediacy to the buildings, which would have, at least, framed the drama in a more telling way. But, in the end, these are minor points. The biggest problem with “The Mercy Seat” is that LaBute all but does his emotionally scarred lovers in with his synthetic moral dilemma. Infidelity has never been more self-important than it is here, or argued about in such a relentlessly noisy fashion.

At the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA. Through April 17. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are priced from $22 to $41 (Student rush $10, one-half hour before the performance) Tickets are available at the box office or by calling 617-437-7172.

Robert Nesti can be reached at


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