Sunday, October 17, 2004

The Mercy Seat (Ensemble Theatre)

Thought provoking but flawed 'MERCY SEAT' at Ensemble

The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11 was an event which forever changed American’s attitudes about our lives. It is against that backdrop that Neil LaBute sets his play ‘THE MERCY SEAT,’ now on stage at Ensemble Theatre.

It’s September 12, and the day before young Ben Harcourt was scheduled to attend a morning meeting at the World Trade Center. Instead, he was having sex with his mistress and boss Abby, in her Manhattan department. He is still at Abby’s flat, watching the devastating events unfold on television and consciously choosing to ignore his mobile phone that is ringing in his hand. He seizes on the terrorist attack as an opportunity to start a new life with his mistress and to allow his wife and children to believe that he died in the terrorist attacks. Abby, on the other hand, wants Ben to call his wife and say he is leaving her and live an “honest” life.

Sounds like it could be intense, interesting. Well, it’s not. After the exposition, we spend an hour and forty minutes of dialogue in which we discover what a spineless, self-absorbed, self-deluded repugnant individual Ben is and how desperate his older mistress is to have him for herself. After a while all the dialogue, the self-pitying, the self-loathing become tedious.

The question is: why should we care about either of these people? On one hand, the characters represent those who manipulate situations for their own needs. On the other hand, the characters, as written, don’t seem to care about each other, so I found myself not caring about them. After a while I just wanted them to shut up and let me go home to the real world where I might find people who actually have joy and woes that are of relevance.

Neil LaBute has built a reputation for writing disquieting plays that center on despair. He stated in one interview that ‘Great good can come from showing great evil.’ If that’s what he is trying to say in ‘THE MERCY SEAT,’ he doesn’t succeed. In addition he indicated that the play's title is a Biblical reference. The Mercy Seat was the top of the Ark of the Covenant that in the temple was the one space where God could come and man or the priests could speak before him. As it relates to the script, it could be interpreted that the situation brought the characters to the real truth of their actions. That, however, if not completely clear.

In the Ensemble Theatre production the performers, John Kolibab and Meg Kelly Schroeder try hard, but aren’t capable of overcoming the tediousness of the script. In addition, the beautiful Schroeder appears to be too young to be 12 years older than Kolibab. Kolibab, on the other hand, doesn’t develop the intellect nor does he have the physical sensuality to have a successful businesswoman, who has smashed her way through the glass ceiling, to want to give it all up for the likes of him.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: If you are a fan of LaBute’s movie scripts, “THE SHAPE OF THINGS” or “IN THE COMPANY OF MEN,” you may like ‘THE MERCY SEAT.’ If not, you probably could find better ways to spend an evening.