By Geary Danihy
Do affairs of the heart matter when the world is being torn apart? How dark is the sin of adultery when set against the sudden, violent death of thousands?
Playwright and film director Neil LaBute ostensibly sets out to ponder these questions in his one-act, two-character play, The Mercy Seat,
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which recently opened at Stamford Theatre Works. That he does not totally succeed does not take away from the power of the play, but it does leave several questions begging.
Eliza Foss and Matthew Fraley in Stamford Theatre Works' "The Mercy Seat" by Neil LaBute
It is Sept 12, 2001, and Ben (Matthew Fraley) is stretched out on the couch in the Manhattan apartment of his boss and lover, Abby (Eliza Foss), watching news reports of the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, a destination he did not arrive at because he had stopped on his way to work for a “quickie.” Ben’s cell phone is ringing. It is his wife. He does not answer, as he has not answered previous calls, for he sees this serendipitous moment as a means of escape for him and Abby. If he doesn’t answer he can join the ranks of the dead and missing and he and his paramour can be together…forever.
It is a tremendously intriguing set-up, and the discussions and arguments that ensue between Ben and Abby often spiral back to the terrorist attacks and Ben’s responsibility to his family, but the fall of the towers is, actually, merely the catalyst for the unraveling of the couple’s three-year relationship and the opportunity for Abby to go at Ben in high passive-aggressive mode, which she does with excruciating success.
Thus, the audience is treated to heated discussions about sexual politics, the nature of harassment, and the self-serving, self-consuming essence of all affairs. Often painful to watch, this emotional gavotte rings so true and covers such intimate details of the couple’s life together that it makes voyeurs of those watching – you know you should turn away but you simply can’t.
Fraley and Foss are fine as the lovers, both creating characters that are believable and compelling. Fraley’s Ben is a little boy lost inside the body of a man, hiding his sexual insecurity behind a bravado that is reflex-machismo. He pouts and sulks, preens, seeks assurances about his sexual prowess, and bobs and weaves every time his lover brings up the subject of letting his wife know he is alive.
Given Ben’s innate childishness, it is sometimes difficult to see why Abby has been in the affair for so long, for as created by Foss, she is an intelligent, erudite if somewhat sharp-tongued woman who could obviously do better than this boy-toy of a man. Yet Foss gives her character an underlying fragility and aching insecurity that compels the audience to accept the logic of this May-September relationship. As she lashes out at Ben she is, in fact, attacking the faults she most detests in herself. His proclivity for deceit and rationalization of less than honorable actions are traits that she shares, much to her self-disgust.
That all of this is not tied tightly to the events of Sept. 11 is the play’s single weakness, a fault that is forgotten as Ben and Abby go at each other, then remembered in retrospect. The shattering of America’s false sense of security is, perhaps, reflected in the dissolution of the lovers’ relationship, but it’s a tenuous connection at best. It’s essentially a bait-and-switch deal – hear (at least in your mind) the thunder and crash of buildings and remember the visceral images of human beings tossing themselves out of windows to escape one immediate, fire-scorched death for a delayed concrete-crush demise, and then weigh these images against the solipsistic rants and sulks of the two lovers and it seems…insulting. And perhaps that’s the point, but I don’t think so.
In the end, we have a standard “you just don’t understand me” pas de deux set against a jolting moment in history that these two people try to make all about them. The tension and revelations, in passing, make it all seem relevant until you walk outside and stare up at the moon and ask…so? The Mercy Seat
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makes you care, for the moment, about Ben and Abby, but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth…or mind. You’ve been enjoying Sex and the City
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while the city was burning.
The Mercy Seat
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runs through Sunday, Oct. 5. For tickets or more information call 359-4414 or go to www.stamfordtheatreworks.org.
To learn what other critics think of this play go to www.ctcritics.org.