The Mercy SeatMercy.gif
By Neil LaBute
Directed by Margaret O'Hora

Friday, March 4, 2005

Quality of 'Mercy' not hard to discernFullerton: Hunger Artists shows the harsh eye that Neil LaBute casts upon humankind.

Special to the OC Register

With stage and screenplays like "Bash," "The Shape of Things" and "In the Company of Men," Neil LaBute is a proven master of the tight, interpersonal confrontation and the surprise character revelation. His focus on psychology shows how a person with a narrow, unbending agenda can cause those around him to yield to his will, often unknowingly - a cynical world view that sees humankind as ultimately selfish.

What better backdrop, then, for LaBute than the catastrophe now universally referred to as 9/11?

In his 2002 drama "The Mercy Seat," LaBute plunges us directly into the most intimate relationship possible - the romance between a man and a woman - and shows the corrosive effects of the catastrophe upon their relationship. Or, do we have that reversed - isn't the disaster simply a catalyst, a random occurrence that brings the couple's deeply buried issues to the surface?

That's the question hovering over "The Mercy Seat," and in the play's Southern California premiere at Hunger Artists Theatre Company, we're allowed to peer into and explore a 90-minute slice of the lives of Ben Harcourt and Abby Prescott as they discuss, haggle, argue, bargain and hashout the many threads of their lives unraveled by 9/11 while sitting in Abby's apartment in Lower Manhattan in the early morning hours of Sept. 12, 2001.

The result of Margaret O'Hora's precise, unerring direction is a dead-on character study that reveals often shameful truths about human behavior in today's society. Audience members may at first think "The Mercy Seat" is only about responses to the disaster - New Yorkers' in general, Ben and Abby's in particular. Not so: Framed by the bloody realities of the attack, LaBute's masterwork is a character study that's carefully, almost painstakingly, layered so that the truths about Ben's and Abby's personalities - their wants, needs, drives and motivations - emerge gradually as the play unfolds.

While we're picking these two apart, LaBute is saying, try taking a close look at yourselves, too.

Though the subtext delves into the couples' history, the text examines an intriguing question: Could a person presumed dead in the collapse of the Twin Towers exploit this misconception to start a new life away from New York City? That's Ben's plan. He spent the previous day having sex with Abby at her apartment when he was meant to be at work; now he sees the 9/11 disaster as a gift he never could have predicted.

What we get from the outset is that Ben and Abby are not only lovers, but also work in the same office. Other details gradually filter in: Not only is Abby Ben's senior, by 12 years - she's also his supervisor. Ben is married, with two young daughters. He and Abby have kept their three-year affair a secret. Abby secretly detests her job and so on.

The most intriguing detail offered by LaBute is "the call" that Abby continuously urges Ben to make. What, exactly, is "the call," and to whom is it to be made? It's a tantalizing clue dangled by LaBute from the opening moments, unfulfilled till "The Mercy Seat" has nearly reached its conclusion.

O'Hora's staging delivers sharp, angular performances by CheyKennedy and Katherine Prenovost. The Armageddon-like chaos - never more than a few feet away, thanks to Mark Lansbury's sound design of unrelenting sirens and TV news commentary - raises long-submerged issues between Ben and Abby, about their sex lives, their oil-and-water personalities, Ben's guilt, Abby's insecurities, and more. Think it's impossible to pack so much into 90 minutes? Think again, my friends think again.

O'Hora's sure-handed direction brings up yet another truth about LaBute: Whenever he allows a tone of playfulness to shimmer through, he instantly transmutes it into something dark and hurtful. It's a measure of the playwright's dour, misanthropic outlook, polished to brilliance by O'Hora and the tough, uncompromising performances of Kennedy and Prenovost, who juggle the script's multiple layers with deceptive ease.

Prenovost's Abby presses Ben relentlessly for signs of compassion for the mind-numbing suffering all around them, faulting his overly simplistic outlook on life and his stunning lack of cultural literacy. At first soft-spoken and tentative, Kennedy's Ben responds to Abby's prodding with vehemence and biting sarcasm. Each performer captures the dichotomies of his character: Though of the Darwinian "nature" school, Ben has the less-aggressive persona, while Abby, representing the outward-looking "nurture" philosophy, is the more proactive. LaBute's layered writing makes Ben more than a cruel opportunist and Abby less than a saint.
Jill Johnson's scenic design subtly encapsulates the script's themes. Abby's digs are comfy and neutral, but look closely: A set of knives is prominently placed on the kitchen countertop, while a small framed painting on the wall depicts an apocalyptic scene, its skies darkened by roiling black clouds.

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