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A CurtainUp Review
The Mercy Seat

Approach, my soul, the mercy-seat
Where Jesus answers prayers;
There humbly fall before his feet,
For none can perish There

---Standard Church Hymn.
To begin, a caveat: For anyone who lost a friend or relative on September 11, 2001, The Mercy Seat, even though often funny, is likely to be too painful to watch. Even if you didn't, you may well be put off by Neal LaBute's New Yorkers whose self-absorption stands firm even as the world around them has collapsed. That caveat aside, The Mercy Seat, with its high profile stars and incisive dialogue, will command your full attention throughout its intermissionless hour and forty minutes, and should make for some animated post-theater talk.

While the tragedy of September 11th frames The Mercy Seat, it is essentially a love story, specifically the more than twice-told tale of a woman (Sigourney Weaver) who allows herself to become entrapped in a secret and unsatisfactory affair because her lover won't -- or can't -- make a break with his wife and children. With LaBute orchestrating the relationship it is of course more sour than sweet, and even the more sympathetic of the pair not all that likeable. Even the passion that's the glue of this three-year office romance is fraught with issues of power and control (she's twelve years older and his boss) that come to a confrontational head during one day, some twenty hours after the Twin Towers' collapse.

Like Ann Nelson's The Guys -- the surprise post 9/11 hit in which Ms. Weaver several times appeared as part of the rotating cast of actors -- The Mercy Seat is a two-hander and with some genuinely funny moments. But while Nelson's story of an editor helping a fireman compose eulogies for his lost comrades was healing and uplifting, La Bute has opted to explore this monumental event through people whose reactions were not in the heroic spirit that helped many to get past the shock. Ben, is more macho jerk than the monster of past screen and stage LaButians. He responds to what's happened as he has apparently always responded to everything: narcissistically and opportunistically.

As the story begins, it's the crack of dawn and Ben sits on a couch in a stylish loft apartment (Abby's) that looks out at the newly devastated downtown landscape. His stare is vacant yet intense, a combination of expressions no actor I've seen in recent years masters better than Schreiber does. Is he in a state of shock? Is he grieving over a loved one? No and no again. Remember we're in LaBute country and Ben has more on his mind than sorrow over the thousands of dead and missing, no doubt including many people he knew in the branch office of the company for which he and Abby work.

Were it not for the fact that he stopped off at Abby's loft for one of their many trysts instead of going directly to a meeting at that Trade Center office, Ben would most likely be dead. Instead, saved by this oral sex interlude (one of two of his preferred, none-missionary modes of love making), Ben, who's heretofore never made good on his intentions to leave his family and start a new life with Abby, sees this as an "opportunity" to write a happy ending for their affair, one which won't require him to tell his wife that he no longer loves her. Instead of a messy divorce he can now play dead and be a hero to his kids. As he sees it, horrible as what happened is, life will go on and "every year, no matter what's happened or is going on, we will still go to the movies and buy gifts and take a two-week vacation" If his plan for a new life isn't exactly "the American way" it does fit his "that's-the-way-it-is" credo.

Not surprisingly, the more sensible (except in her choice of lovers) and sensitive Abby, is not smitten with this wild scheme which would force her to abandon her hard-earned career and put them into a sort of self-created witness protection way of life. Her reaction to Ben's uninvolvement with the larger picture brings all the worms that have been gnawing inside her crawling to the surface and the result is a battle that while not physically violent, inflicts shattering wounds.

Weaver subtly communicates the complexities of a woman for whom the events beyond her immediate life finally force her to evaluate what a best selling self-help title dubbed Smart W omen, Foolish Choices. She's smart, tough and acerbic, yet you see the vulnerability that's made her shut up and put up with Ben's sexually expressed one-upmanship.

LaBute is even-handed in apportioning the dialogue with its often unsettling wit. Both actors portray their parts in a rich pallette of colors. However,, this is largely Schreiber's show. His Ben is a dazzling addition to his stage resume -- as the understated, charismatic adulterer in Betrayal and as a sexually and class conflicted Iago. As he proved himself an ideal Shakespearean villain, so he seems born to probe the nooks and crannies of LaBute's anti-hero. No matter where he stands or sits on the Acorn Theater's wide set, he commands your undivided attention so that you note every flicker that crosses his face, every shift of color, every restless movement of hands and shoulders. Whether speaking cryptically or delivering a near monologue length speech, he does so with authority and naturalness -- and he almost persuades you to like him.

Naturally, LaBute deserves the credit for the spontaneity of what could easily be a debate. He has a knack for constructing scripts that sound unscripted. If the plot -- Ben's plan and Abby's shooting it down -- seems contrived and, in fact, downright silly, as well as full of holes, the bravura acting reels you in.

LaBute, who also directs, has changed the stage directions that call for covering Neil Patel's sleek loft set with dust from the nearby inferno and instead dusted up the windows (which, with the help of James Vermeulen's lighting, works well but dusting up the whole set would probably be even more effective). The sound design by David Van Tieghem is mercifully and appropiately low key and while Catherine Zuber is credit as costume designer, this simply consists of slacks and shirts courtesy of Donna Karan.

One of the above mentioned holes is a cell phone that figures importantly at a period in time when cell phones weren't working. To introduce an unseen neighbor needing milk for her children, the live-alone Abby buys milk -- not something you can stock up on except in powdered form - by the gallon. As Ben would say "whatever!" Any quibbles about The Mercy Seat are not going to be about such oversights but about the play's much talk and little action and some people's understandable inability or unwillingness to watch Mr. LaBute lower the flag on the more positive images that have helped us move forward from the events of September 11th. Some may even accuse him of being as opportunistic as Ben in using tragedy to give a sense of the extraordinary to what would otherwise be ordinary.

This is MCC's first season in the new live theater multiplex on Theater Row. In addition to The Mercy Seat, the season will include first-time playwright Anto Howard's Scattergood, starring Brian Murray in the title role and directed by Dough Hughes. Finally, there's Intrigue with Fay, by Katie Robin, directed by Jim Simpson

LaBute plays reviewed at CurtainUp:
The Distance From Here
The Shape of Things

Other plays reviewed starring Liev Schreiber:

The Guys -- the movie version of which will star Sigourney Weaver

Written and directed by Neil LaBute
Cast: Sigourney Weaver and Liev Schreiber
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: James Vermeulen
Sound Design: David Van Tieghem
Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, without intermission
Acorn Theater at Theater Row, 410 W 42nd St. (9th/10th Aves). 212-279-4200. web site
11/26/02-1/12/02 opening 12/18/02. Tickets, $50.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on December 14th press preview.
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