Theatre review - The Mercy Seat

Neil LaBute’s play, originally staged in 2002 in a production starring Liev Schreiber and Sigourney Weaver, was one of the earliest theatrical response to 9/11, and this revival has been timed to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the attacks.

For the first half hour it’s not always clear where this two-hander is going. A couple, Ben and Abby, bicker and needle one another. The phone keeps ringing. Ben refuses to take or make a call. In fact he never leaves the couch on which he’s sprawled. But, as becomes apparent, this is an extraordinary time: the day after 9/11 and, like everyone else, Ben and Abby are in shock. Ben worked in the Twin Towers and was supposed to have been there on the morning of the attacks. Instead he had chosen to go round and see Abby. Now Ben wants to use the catastrophe as a catalyst for his disappearance; he wants to leave his estranged wife and two daughters, to split cleanly from his marriage and responsibilities and to start afresh with his mistress, Abby. For, as he says: “The American way is to overcome…to come out on top”.

But things are never that simple. LaBute’s caustic, domestic drama unravels slowly, revealing crucial shards of information, piece by piece, allowing the audience to slowly build a picture of Ben and Abby’s relationship. Eventually we learn that Abby is actually Ben’s boss; she’s also considerably older than him, and though they’ve been together for three years, he never likes to look at her face when they have sex.

Played out in the Pleasance’s tiny studio space, Rob Watt’s production is as taut and claustrophobic as the LaBute’s writing demands, and at times the tension is palpable. It helps that the performances are terrific. Both Sean O’Neil and Janine Ingrid Ulfane are pitch-perfect in emotional register as they skilfully negotiate the abrupt shifts in power between the couple. Each line, every exchanged look, is rich with meaning.

LaBute could, it must be said, have used any universal tragedy or catastrophic event as the backdrop to this psychological dissection of human wreckage. Instead of tackling head-on the aftermath of that day, LaBute’s sights are focussed firmly on the selfish responses of a couple who think they can turn the catastrophe to their advantage. LaBute himself recognises this when he refers to his play as being about “the painful, simplistic warfare we often wage on the hearts of those we profess to love.” His couple appear oblivious to the effects the tragedy had had on the nation as whole or its wider impact.

Nik Corrall’s design has white gauze covering most of the furniture, including a television which is permanently playing scenes and analysis from the Twin Towers carnage. This emphasises the idea that, for this couple, reality is temporarily obscured. For them all that matters is their relationship and a decision that may or may not change their lives. It’s brilliant writing and LaBute keeps you guessing until a surprise denouement that feels like the final twist of a knife in “the ground zero of [their] lives”.

Originally published by Exeunt Magazine