Neil LaBute’s work is often concerned with the morals and ethics of selfish people, characters that all-too-often resemble ourselves. It’s precisely why the writer-director’s work is always engaging and challenging.
His 2002 play, “Mercy Seat,” offers yet another provocative scenario for audiences. Ben, a husband and father to two children, is holed up in his mistress’ apartment. His cell phone is incessantly ringing. It’s his wife. She’s trying to get in touch with him, because he works in the World Trade Center and it’s the morning of September 12th. Ben stopped off to see his mistress, Abby (who also happens to be his boss), on the way to work on 9/11. Ben sees this as an opportunity to be among the missing, to race off with Abby into a new life, avoiding the ugliness of divorce.
The play itself is challenging given its structure. It’s a 90-minute two-hander, set in one place, with no intermission. One can imagine that the original cast, Liev Schrieber and Sigourney Weaver on Broadway, were able to find enough in the writing to make it more explosive than the revival cast has. I don’t fault these actors, however. The writing isn’t Mr. LaBute’s stinging best, and the text of the play focuses on Ben’s selfishness and Abby’s assessment of their relationship — stuff we’ve seen before. As a matter of fact, actors Johnny Clark and Michelle Clunie do very strong work amidst rather plodding direction. When you’ve got a piece this confined and claustrophobic, it requires inspired work on everyone’s part.
Still, Mr. Clark, and Ms. Clunie are believable every step of the way. There are painful revelations, guilt, anger and resentment that infuse their situation. These two people make it perfectly clear why affairs ultimately never can work out. They are living a fantasy life that is repeatedly, and in this case catastrophically, punctured by reality. Indeed, the backdrop of 9/11 mirrors the state of this couple. America was shocked out of its fantasy of being untouchable in a particularly spectacular way. We were all in the rubble at Ground Zero, psychologically and emotionally. So, too, this relationship.
And for whatever dramatic faults the play may have, Mr. LaBute makes up for it as he always does — by providing us with an ocean of subtext and deeper meaning that goes far beyond the drama. Heck, for someone as prolific as Mr. LaBute, not every work can be a masterpiece. That he continuously wrings thoughtful and profound meaning out of nearly every work is why I never feel let down.
The Mercy Seat presumably refers to the seat that rests atop the Ark of the Covenant, made of gold, that was located inside the Temple’s Holy of Holies. This chamber was entered into once a year, on Yom Kippur, and only by the Jewish High Priest. Yom Kippur is the annual day of atonement for Jews, in which Jews ask those they have wronged, and God, for forgiveness for all the sins committed over the past year. Each person is thus granted a clean slate, from which they venture into the world again, washed of their sins.
The Mercy Seat is where God presumably sits. Armed with this knowledge, the play takes on considerable meaning. Ben was shown mercy on a day when over 3,000 people and their loved ones were not — and he was shown mercy even while ostensibly committing a sin (although a late twist calls that into question). Both characters are thus presented with the kind of moral challenge Mr. LaBute loves to pose. Now that you’ve been shown this degree of mercy, what will you do? The broad answer suggested by the text is to atone and begin anew, as Jews do each Yom Kippur. However, Mr. LaBute goes one step further than simply “beginning anew”. To him, this means living an authentic life. Live honestly. That alone is a greater reward than any selfish desire.
The Mercy Seat plays at [Inside] The Ford Theatres in Hollywood through April 24.