A Question of Mercy at the Bush Theatre
A Question of Mercy is the latest offering from David Rabe, the acclaimed playwright best known for Hurlyburly (which won rave West End reviews last year for the Peter Hall production and is currently being shot as a film starring Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey and Meg Ryan). That said, however, Hurlyburly fans should be warned - this is no cocaine-fueled frenzy, Question treads on much soberer ground.
It is the story of Anthony (Seth Gilliam), a young gay man with AIDS who wants help to commit suicide, which he sees as the ultimate relief from the pain of his affliction. Around him are his friends who are trying to come to terms with his wishes, including Anthony's boyfriend who drags his heels, unable to contemplate his partner's death. A sympathetic doctor is persuaded to provide guidance, but the legal and ethical considerations weigh heavily on his mind as it becomes increasing clear that Anthony wants his participation in the act, not just his advice.
There are several flaws in this play. At two and a quarter hours running time (excluding the interval), it is much too long considering the relatively straightforward plot and limited number of issues it attempts to tackle. It is surprising that the director, Doug Hughes, hasn't edited the script more rigorously - there are certainly many obvious opportunities for some generous cutting. Furthermore, AIDS seems too obvious a choice of terminal illness and, rather than adding an extra dimension, tends to obscure the other issues.
The area in which the script most notably does succeed is in threading a vein of humour through potentially depressing subject matter. This is worked to good effect, providing much needed relief for the audience. The acting is strong too with all of the characters well developed, particularly those of Anthony's boyfriend (Richard Bekins) and the often comical doctor (David Chandler). Sadly, these strengths only make the weaknesses of the script all the more disappointing.
This production of A Question of Mercy is the original New York production, performed by the Long Wharf Theatre of Connecticut. It forms part of the Bush's international exchange programme and runs until 23 May.