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The Mercy Seat

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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Tragedies have a habit of blunting with time; as the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 approaches those three numbers have been used and abused for every political purpose imaginable, and something of their raw edge has worn away. Neil LaBute’s play is still ragged and subversive enough to cut a swathe through the majority of artistic responses to that day, but here The Mercy Seat feels muted and muffled, and those ten years feel like an eternity.

Ben is a New York businessman having an affair with his boss, and the attacks on the World Trade Centre provide him with the perfect excuse to vanish from his loveless marriage. As his missed calls from his desperate family mount up in his voicemail, Ben leaves the phone ringing as he and his lover Abby engage in a war of increasingly bitter recrimination.

An analysis of confused passion and the inescapable power dynamics of sex and secrets, LaBute’s play is underscored by the constant presence of devastation on the streets outside. Less about 9/11 and more about its ability to "make what we’re doing possible", it remains eerily prophetic.

Janine Ingrid Ulfane plays Abby like an American Rebekah Brooks, with wide-eyed stares that seem both wounded and invulnerable at the same time. Though often too laconic to build momentum or passion, her diatribe on Ben’s sexual preferences is the show’s undoubted high point. Sean O'Neil is far less successful, there’s nothing in his portrayal to suggest the slightest virtue in Ben, and his lack of energy is devastating to the play’s pacing.

Under Rob Watt’s direction the dialogue manages to be both slow and unclear, with lines drawling out on top of one another. LaBute’s play is something of a structureless mass: with no ticking clock or sense of time it has the potential to drag out endlessly, it must be attacked and sculpted into rhythms, events and climaxes. Here it is allowed to sag, wallow and outstay its welcome.

- Stewart Pringle


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