by Neil LaBute
Directed by Alex Papps
With Jane Badler & Simon Wood
Set by Peter Mumford
Lighting by Stelios Karagiannis
Stage Manager Isobel Ferns
The Mercy Seat (8 Feb – 8 March, 2008)
Cameron Woodhead, The Age (11/11/08)
American playwright and director Neil LaBute has a disturbing imagination. He has a talent for creating characters who are worse than they need to be: the otherwise upstanding Mormons who commit murder in Bash (the show that got LaBute kicked out of the Mormon church); the destructive relationships between car passengers in Autobahn; the psychotic art student in The Shape Of Things.
LaBute is fascinated by manipulative personalities. His plays are full of seemingly normal people doing morally reprehensible things. Their introspection, as they justify themselves, sets the ethical compass squarely on the magnet of contemporary narcissism, and the needle goes haywire.
But the playwright’s most obvious virtue is his mastery of realistic dialogue. He has a fluid, idiomatic style that mimics so closely the way people speak that it gives the strongest impression of having been overheard. With a LaBute play, you might have to stretch your imagination to fit a Procrustean central premise, but the action follows in a plume as dramatic and inevitable as silt dredged from the bottom of the sea.
The Mercy Seat was one of the first theatrical responses to 9/11. It’s a claustrophobic two-hander set within spitting distance of Ground Zero on the morning after the towers came down.
Ben (Simon Wood) is an office worker saved from annihilation by chance. Instead of going to the World Trade Centre that fateful morning, Ben had a sexual liaison at the apartment of his older lover and boss, Abby (Jane Badler). Rather than call his wife and kids, Ben plans to use his narrow escape from tragedy to run off with Abby and start a new life.
Against the pall of a city in shock, Ben and Abby remain fiercely self-absorbed. They are drawn – like a tongue to a cavity – to examine the flaws in their relationship. Through barbed and recursive conversation, it becomes clear they have developed a corrosive intimacy – one marked by age difference, power imbalance and serial deception.
Red Stitch has mounted a strong production, with both actors perfectly cast.
The performances skilfully render the chemistry of this toxic romance.
Director Alex Papps achieves a fast-flowing, carefully nuanced and consistently absorbing production.
And Peter Mumford’s set design – a spartan apartment, filmed with dust from the destruction of the towers – gives a material analogue to the moral poverty of LaBute’s characters.
Jane Badler and Simon Wood in The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute.