The Mercy Seat was one of the first plays to take place around the events of 9/11 in New York. The play is by Neil LaBute, the so-called American Misanthrope, who has been accused of excessive misogyny. These labels were placed on him after one of his most controversial plays, In the Company of Men, became known in theatrical circles. The plot involves two guys who set out to humiliate a deaf girl by making her fall in love with them both and then dumping her. Another play, Fat Pig, didn’t do much to take away the labels. In it, a nearly perfect executive, handsome and in shape, falls in love with a heavy girl only to be driven to break up by his best friend’s taunts.
I tend to see LaBute as a rather moralistic playwright. Sure, his plays are brutish, nasty, and short, but underneath one can sense a man who cares about men and women but sees the destructive sides of each. If anything, men come off worse than the women in his plays.
One of the most edgy companies in Los Angeles, the VS. Theatre Company, is presenting The Mercy Seat at Inside The Ford. The play involves a man and women who are in the midst of an affair (he is married and she is his boss) the day after the horrendous events of 9/11.
The man, Ben, has decided the events of the previous day might prove just the thing to push the relationship to another level. His wife and kids think he has perished, but the morning of the attack, he was at his mistress’ apartment. He wants to let his family think he is dead and get on with his life with Abby, his mistress. She has other ideas and the events make her challenge the whole basis of their relationship.
The play is really a battle inside a relationship whose faults are revealed by these outside events. She thinks he is selfish and cowardly (he is not out helping at Ground Zero) and when it comes down to it not a very good sexual partner (he only likes “doggie style”). He thinks she is a bitch and trying to belittle him and her involvement with him.
Who is really to blame? That is the question Labute’s plays ask. He has said he likes to create complex characters and put them in a complex and potentially devastating situation to see what they do and how they behave. The play never resolves the course of their relationship so the audience is left to decide and in the process must face their own hypocrisies and brutish natures.
LaBute is lucky to have two excellent actors in Jonny Clark, an actor to watch, and Michelle Clunie, who was in the very frank Queer Like Folk. They hold their against each other and let their characters gradually reveal themselves. At the curtain call they look like they themselves had been put through the wringer. Both give powerful unselfish performances. Ron Klier has directed them with a sure eye for detail and lets the characters reveal themselves slowly.
The Mercy Seat will play at Inside The Ford through April 24. Go see this one.