Reviewed by George Basler
In a Playbill interview about The Mercy Seat, playwright Neil LaBute said the title is a Biblical reference that pertains to mercy seat on the top of the Ark of the Covenant that was the one place where God could come and man could speak before him.
“I think, hopefully, both of them (the play’s two characters) are at some point kneeling before it. They are throwing themselves at the feet (of God), looking for mercy,” he said.
Whether they will receive this mercy is the question at the heart of the play that opened this past weekend (April 13-15) at the KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton and will run weekends through April 29.
The play is a riveting one, and the KNOW production, directed by artistic and executive director Tim Gleason, does it justice.
Gleason keeps the action emotionally tense throughout, and the actors, Amoreena Wade and Jeff Tagliaferro, give performances of great emotional depth that are troubling, powerful and totally compelling.
What’s particularly impressive is that Wade and Tagliaferro must present dialogue that is terse, rhythmical and overlapping at times. This requires actors to be in perfect sync with each other to make the performances work. Such is the case with the KNOW production.
LaBute is a controversial playwright, known for his sardonic attitude toward human behavior and scathing outlook on male misogyny. In The Mercy Seat, he uses the national trauma of the 9/11 attacks as the backdrop for a play that explores the complexity of human relationships and the unsettling urges that can blight lives. While the subject matter is deeply serious, there are moments of dark humor.
Tagliaferro plays Ben Harcourt, a philandering husband who is supposed to be at work in the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks. Instead, Ben has stopped at the apartment of his mistress, Abby Prescott, for a sexual encounter. Abby, played by Wade, is also Ben’s boss, and the play reveals they have been carrying on an affair for three years.
Ben sees the opportunity to turn the national tragedy to his personal benefit. Instead of answering frantic cellphone calls from his wife and two young children, he contemplates simply disappearing from his family to start a new life with his mistress.
Obviously, Ben is not a sympathetic character. And, at the start of the play, neither is Abby as she bombards Ben with a barrage of taunts and sarcastic comments. Ben responds with a self-pitying defensiveness. Their relationship has soured, to put it mildly, but the characters seem trapped in it, through either inertia or self-deception.
Tagliaferro and Wade deserve credit for making the complex characters deeply human, despite their flaws.
Wade deserves special mention for skillfully changing the audience’s understanding of Abby as the play goes on. She peels away the character’s brittleness to show the vulnerability of a woman who needs an emotional commitment from a man totally incapable of giving one.
While Ben stays mired in self-absorption, Abby at least tries to connect to the larger tragedy outside the apartment door. Wade is intense and believable as the deeply troubled character.
Tagliaferro is equally good as Ben. While the character is a self-absorbed coward, he has moments of self-revelation that lay bare his recognition that he is a deeply flawed human being. Tagliaferro plays these moments beautifully.
The actor also does a fine job showing the character’s hidden anger and desperation as he contemplates running from a life that has become almost intolerable for him.
Particularly disturbing is a scene when Ben wallows in self-justification as he argues why it’s better for him to let his wife and children think he’s dead, rather than dragging them through divorce court. Tagliaferro plays the scene in a way that Ben’s rationalization almost makes logical sense. As the character notes, even the most traumatic events have a short shelf life. “This is a national disaster, yes … until the next time the Yankees win the pennant. Then we will move on from there,” he says.
That observation rings painfully true.
The Mercy Seat has its down moments. Discussions of the power differential between Ben and Abby seem too pat. The descriptions of the characters sexual encounters, while necessary (Ben doesn’t even look at Abby during sex), are unnecessarily graphic. LaBute seems to be going merely for shock value. The couple’s bickering seems to go around and around at times, without going anywhere, but maybe that’s LaBute’s point.
One thing is certain: The KNOW Theatre production is a tour de force that raises troubling issues. The audience is left to ponder two questions that LaBute raised in his Playbill interview: Do the characters deserve the mercy they seek? Will they receive it?
IF YOU GO: Performances of The Mercy Seat will be 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. through April 29 at KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Tickets are $20 ($18 for seniors, $15 for students); purchase online at knowtheatre.org or call 607-724-4341. There will be a pay-what-you-can performance at 8 p.m. Thursday (April 19).
KNOW actors excel in play that puts provocative spin on 9/11
Reviewed by George Basler