A dynamic and disturbing experience can shake you up at Washington PA’s Off the Wall Theatre. The play takes place in Manhattan the night after the 9/11 trauma. It’s The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute. Although that tragedy occurred 9 years ago, it still resonates for many people. And it can continue to do so in this intense play. And, after departing from such intimate pain, you could find the present looking and feeling somehow different. Credit the effect of perceptive one-time New Yorker, director Robyne Parrish and two thoroughly convincing Pittsburgh actors, Michael E. Moats and Adrienne Wehr.
Actually the play does not concentrate on what happened at The World Trade Center. Rather, LaBute focuses on two lovers and their struggles to come to terms with where they are with each other at that time. Ben and Abby are alone in her apartment, where they had been that fateful morning, having left their mutual office in the Twin Towers for some quick sex. She, single, is his boss. He’s married. They’d been furtively connecting for three years. Ben sees the historical moment as an opportunity to be listed among the dead and missing and to escape his responsibilities, a way for them to start a new life together. Abby wants him to publically vow his love for her and disavow his family.
The Mercy Seat’s volatile, high intensity talk comes full of accusations, revelations and residual guilt. It smokes and sizzles while outside and on a TV screen the details of death and destruction repeat and repeat, even as these people keep on circling the same emotional spaces, verbally jabbing at each other, landing blows, then clinching in desperate need, an uncertain contest with no one winning points, even though she’s stronger than he is. In fact, LaBute may have fallen down here; they really seem mis-matched
Without him saying that much about what happened not far from the windows of this apartment, LaBute shows people with parallels to the World Trade Center victims, trying to survive, trying to make sense of what is happening to them. Hoping to go on living happily, even if these don’t seem like happy people.
Moreover, in The Mercy Seat he has written characters with genuine and specific personalities. Articulate, intelligent and self-aware, even if neither of them seems admirable. And his well-conceived, often-fractured dialogue dovetails with their fractured natures. You might need to know, by the way, that they speak very explicitly about sex, usually in street language.
However, in this 100 minute experience, the first half seems to be treading the same ground, tension, release, tension. But then, something remarkable comes together, picking up clarity, speed and more concentrated intensity. So, by the time something else unexpected happens,you may feel as shaken as they.
Michael E. Moats version of Ben comes across superbly, creating a genuine sense of a man lost in his own confusion about what he wants and who he is, yet reasonable and bright enough to be candid about his limitations. As for Adrienne Wehr’s Abby, she remarkably creates the image of a woman bristling with defensive antagonism and yet, ultimately, tender, vulnerable and desperately emotionally needy.
Clearly director Parrish has found ways to get the most out of these talents. She has also made thorough and natural use of a true-to-life set thereby evoking a sense of reality rather than fiction. She also tellingly brings out some of the character’s inner workings in how and where they move as well as what they do with the every day trappings of life, furniture, cell phones, kitchen utensils.
As for the title, an explanation of the meaning ventures into the arcane. And since this play does not seem like an intellectual abstraction, even if you can find symbols, hold fast to your seat: the sense of reality could you make you ask questions about your own life and about the impermanence of what we take for granted.
The Mercy Seat continues through March 20th at Off the Wall Theatre in Washington, PA. 724/ 873-3576 www.insideoffthewall.com