The Mercy Seat

  • Date:
    Saturday, November 1, 2003
    Review by:
    Alan Bird


    Neil LaBute has built a reputation for writing amoral and disquieting plays that focus on the hopelessness and despair that often lies behind the violent sadistic acts that from time to time fills the front page of our morning papers. Though the subject matter of LaBute’s plays is amoral, the playwright himself is motivated in his writing by a strong sense of morality. He believes, as he said in one recent interview, ‘Great good can come from showing great evil’, and there may well be some truth in this sentiment. Maybe we do re-invent our belief in what is good and moral in response to what is obviously cruel and vicious and examine our conscience accordingly. My problem with his plays is that one feels so alienated by the apparently meaningless violence of his characters that it becomes impossible to relate to them, and rather than questioning our own morality we merely feel sickened by the gratuitous acts portrayed.

    In ‘The Mercy Seat’ LaBute has again written an amoral play, but one that does not focus on violence. Instead of his characters acting out acts of death and destruction, he has surrounded them by a scene of devastation, and then describes the inadequacy with which they respond to the event.

    The devastation is the morning after 9/11, when the initial shock and emotional numbness that New Yorkers’ felt as a result of that terrible attack upon their city was slowly turning into painful reality. Loved ones roaming the streets of New York searching for their friends and relatives, with the painful realisation dawning that they might never see them again.

    The story concerns Ben Harcourt who was scheduled to attend a meeting at the World Trade Centre on the morning of 9/11. However, instead of being at the WTC he was having sex with his mistresses Abby, in her Manhattan department.

    The following day 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 the background. He seizes upon 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 a hero in the terrorist attacks.

    Abby is not so enamoured with the plan, and though she is apparently concerned about the appalling destruction on the other side of her front door, she too remains tied up in her own needs for love and commitment. Abby wants Ben to have the courage and honesty to tell his wife that he no longer loves her, in other words Abby wants Ben to choose her over his family. On the very day Ben’s family are trying to contact him by his mobile phone to discover if he is dead or alive, Abby wants Ben to ring his wife and say he is leaving her for another woman!

    What then takes place is an hour and forty minutes of dialogue in which we discover what a spineless, self-absorbed, self-deluded repugnant individual that Ben is. Yet, despite his obvious faults one cannot help but sympathise with his inability to make a decision. Being truthful and honest with people you once loved and who still love you is far from easy. How many people run scared of their own life, seeking for a painless way to start anew?

    Where the play falls down is in the disparity between Ben and Abby. One can understand why Ben would want a relationship with an older woman who is his boss at work. He is emotionally immature, he has the opportunity of promotion and any new life with Abby is bound to be financially more rewarding then his present situation. However, what benefits are there for Abby? She is aware that Ben is spineless and self-absorbed, she is Ben’s intellectual superior and their lovemaking leaves her feeling devalued.

    The dialogue between these two characters rapidly becomes tedious, and though they may not be aware that their relationship is doomed, the audience quickly becomes cognisant of that fact. The mindless bickering, the constant request for love and re-assurance that is relentlessly frustrated, along with their inability to respond to the devastation outside their apartment without reference to themselves, leaves you feeling exhausted.

    It is only when Abby makes a decision and forces Ben to act that the cyclic sequence breaks and momentarily one suddenly feels involved in the self-created plight of these two characters, sadly this comes at the very end of the play!

    The acting from Sinead Cusack as Abby and John Hannah as Ben is flawless. Sinead Cusack captures both the inner strength and also the vulnerability of her character. She is able to express neediness, determination and tenderness without smothering her character in any of these emotions. John Hannah’s Ben remains determinedly indecisive, unable to see the inconsistencies of his emotions.

    Despite Michael Attenborough’s production being full of nervous energy and self-absorbed anguish, and despite the sharpness of LaBute’s writing, the play failed to grab my attention. To repeat what I wrote about Neil LaBute’s last play at the Almeida “The Distance From Here”, it simply is not invigorating enough to make good drama.

    What other critics had to say.....
    NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STADARD says, "Missing motive in a lover's escape plan." SUSANNAH CLAPP for THE OBSERVER says, "Queasily admirable." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "This is a play where you feel the really big issue is the one that is happening offstage." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "LaBute’s 9/ll my view, a piece that exploits and trivialises that calamity while intermittently affecting a respect for those who died." VICTORIA SEGAL for THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "...its grim credibility, the recognition that even events of global magnitude cannot halt the demands of the ego."

    External links to full reviews from popular press
    The Times
    Sunday Times
    The Guardian
    The Observer

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