If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan


Stamford Theatre Works has opened its 21st season with Neil LaBute’s contemporary drama, “The Mercy Seat” not too long after offering the playwright’s acerbic “The Shape of Things” in a strong production last March. LaBute is currently averaging about one play a year and his work – with its corrosive, brittle dialogue - is known for provoking strong emotions and opinions. “The Mercy Seat” again follows this talented playwright’s journey into the dark hearts of human beings with mixed results in Stamford.

Set on September 12, 2001 in a New York apartment not far from the World Trade Center disaster, LaBute’s two-character play concerns Ben Harcourt, a young married preppie on the way up in business who is having an affair with his boss, the older Abby Prescott. On the day of the attacks instead of going to his office located in the Twin Towers, Ben stops by to visit Abby. When “the event that changes everything” occurs, Ben is suddenly faced with the opportunity to be presumed dead – leaving him free to change his identity, escape a bad marriage and make a new life with Abby. Not so fast, though. Abby wants to talk about their relationship first. She should.

The provocative subject matter of “The Mercy Seat” is punctuated throughout with the shrill, insistent rings of Ben and Abby’s phones – callers from the outside trying to find out if they’re still alive. As Abby and Ben debate the nature of their relationship and the choices before them, the terrible tragedy just blocks away is never far from the crux of their decision-making. LaBute’s theme of power struggles within relationships takes on new meaning here as we observe an older woman involved with her subordinate and all the ramifications that go with her actions. We are also asked to question the morality of their decisions in the harsh light of 9/11.

In Stamford, director Steve Karp has cast Eliza Foss and Matthew Fraley in these challenging roles and while each actor is polished and technically astute, they never really convince or click as a couple. There seems to be little history or real connection evident between people that have, we are told, been in a relationship for three years. This history is crucial to underscore the dance they play out in the 90-minute, intermissionless drama. In addition, Ms. Foss is far too maternal to suggest the type of career woman we learn has clawed her way up the corporate ladder while Mr. Fraley fares better in capturing the inherent callousness of his role, one of LaBute’s typically self-absorbed boy/men. But there is still a general lack of real tension throughout and Mr. Karp fails to pace and build the confrontations effectively between those precisely timed phone calls. The end results are a talky drama that eventually becomes tiresome.

Kenneth A. Larson’s beautifully appointed apartment, nicely lit by Aaron Meadow with spot-on decoration by Stephanie Tucci, is one of the best sets we’ve seen at Theater Works. Holly Rihn’s costumes are simple but also appropriate. One wishes the entire effort at STW was better realized beyond the technical elements.

“The Mercy Seat” continues at Stamford Theatre Works through October 5. For tickets and further information call the theatre box office at 203.359.4414 or visit online: www.stamfordtheatreworks.org.

Tom Holehan is co-founder of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tom@stratford.lib.ct.us. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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