A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
The Mercy Seat

In The Mercy Seat, Neil LaBute focuses on two people on September 12, 2001, the day after the catastrophe at the World Trade Center.  The tragedy brought out the best in many survivors, but Mr. LaBute’s couple are far from heroic   In the midst of destruction in both plays, people go about their everyday lives, their small, self-centered concerns in contrast to the shattering events around them.  Ben (Liev Schreiber) is a guy who takes things as they come, and makes the most of them. l.  He was going to an early meeting at the World Trade Center on 9/ll but stopped off first at the nearby apartment of his mistress Abby (Sigourney Weaver) for a quick one.  Saved from the tragedy and assuming he has been officially numbered among the missing dead, he welcomes the opportunity to “disappear” with his mistress, shed his wife and family, and start a new life out West.

Abby is not so sure she wants to give up her position as head of the section where Ben works.  This leads to a heated argument about their 3-year-relationship with specific details about their lovemaking (with which she is not happy), about their jobs, about his responsibilities to his family, and his ill-thought-out plans for their future.  Except for sex, they do not seem particularly well matched.  She is cutting and quick, ruthless and cool. He is twelve years younger, slower but stubborn.  LaBute’s brilliant dialogue excels in brevity and pinpoint exactness; it is sharp and often humorous, with the two characters revealing themselves entirely through dialogue and movement within the confined space of her upscale apartment.  Here is Ben summing up himself in three sentences:
 “I always take the easy route, do it faster, simpler, you know, whatever it takes to get done, be liked, get by.  That’s me.  Cheated in school. . . took whatever I could get from whomever I could take it from.”
Like LaBute’s pair in the film “In the Company of Men,”  Ben is selfish, his viewpoint still that of a high school adolescent, thinking only of himself, exploiting others for his own satisfaction.  (LaBute’s central character in “The Distance from Here,” premiered recently in London, is actually a high school adolescent, brilliantly drawn.)  Abby is a ruthless woman when it comes to business, where she has worked her way to the top in an important company.  But in their sexual relationship, she has been the submissive one, giving in to his selfishness, possibly through fear of losing him, and believing submission is preferable to loneliness.  LaBute’s titles are often metaphors for the action, this one referring to a religious question the show poses, described by Ms. Weaver as “Are you able to give mercy when it’s denied you?”  The play poses the question but does not answer it.

Subtle and quietly detailed, the outstanding acting by both principals rounds out and humanizes the characters.  Under Mr.LaBute’s impeccable direction, “The Mercy Seat”  is a fascinating study of two people whose hang-ups and hopes are so well demonstrated in the course of an hour and a half that you leave with an insight into human behavior that at the beginning of the play might have been unacceptable.   (Acorn Theater, 410 W. 42 Street, New York, 212-279-4200)