The Mercy Seat | Brainbox ProjectLeft - Rebecca Davis & Paul Barry. Photos - James Morgan Photographic Consultancy

Neil LaBute
(Nurse Betty, In The Company of Men) is the proverbial bad boy of American theatre. He’s well known for his edgy portrayals of human relationships, and delights in seeing what he can get away with before an audience will turn on him. He’s put his hand to all manner of turpitudes, not least of which include infanticide, sexism, cruelty, and infidelity. And it’s the latter that the 2002 play The Mercy Seat is hinged upon.  

On September 12, 2001, Ben Harcourt (Paul Barry) is not where he’s supposed to be. He’s in the downtown New York apartment of his lover, Abby Prescott (Rebecca Davis) – who also happens to be his boss. He’s supposed to be dead, but he isn’t – a coincidence he sees as ripe with pure potential - and now he has to make a choice. Because he was getting a blow job instead of going to a meeting at The World Trade Centre, Ben has gone from escaping death, to contemplating faking his own death, in the space of a few minutes. Will Ben let his family know he’s alive, or will he and Abby take this chance to create a new life for themselves?

This is a play dripping with moral dilemmas and LaBute refuses to judge his characters. He sets up a precariously thin line between good and bad and then dangles his characters over it, and sits back and grins as he listens to the audience exclaim in shock. LaBute is not a writer who wants his audience to feel comfortable, and this is where both the strengths and weaknesses in The Mercy Seat lie.

In attempting to maintain the discomfort for the audience, along with the element of shock and surprise, the entire first half of the play drags its feet like Quasimodo at a chiropractic convention. It takes a long time to come to the crux of the matter, but when it gets there, it comes into its own.

LaBute's dialogue is his genius; it has a truly natural rhythm and is the sort of discourse, ripe with dysfunctional sparring, that inspires comparisons to Pinter and Mamet. And in a One Act play that runs almost two hours long and is set in one location, you’d want some pretty inspiring dialogue. When Abby asks Ben how he feels about the catastrophe of 9/11 that’s just occurred right outside her high-rise window, he replies, “I’m very… not good.” Later, in a frank discussion about why they always have sex doggy style, Abby muses that Ben’s wife probably has the same experience as her: “She’s probably read the old mattress tag even more than me, poor bitch.” It’s this sort of caustic facileness, both demoralizing and funny, that’s so eminently watchable.
More than just watchable is Sydney actor Paul Barry, whose complete embodiment of the character of Ben Harcourt is nothing short of astonishing. I’ve not seen such a natural and engaged performance in a long time. Talented Perth actress Rebecca Davis also gives a convincing performance as the tortured Abby.

I had a problem with Abby though, and now I ask for your indulgence as I gripe: why do so many male playwrights write these overly acerbic, unsympathetic female characters? Is that really how they see women? It’s frustrating to watch what seems like an unending parade of nasty women traipse across the boards. (Alan Becher’s Carol, from PTC's recent Baby Boomer Blues, would make a good BBF for LaBute’s Abby). While Abby’s ruminations on why doggy style sex isn’t so great for a woman is funny and clever, LaBute devotes a good quarter of an hour to it - and placing it in the middle of one of the most apocalyptic moments in US history, while her lover is trying to decide if he’s going to fake his own death and never see his children ever again, smacks of a playwright who’s more keen on shock value than integrity to the story. Had there been one or two purely intimate and loving scenes between Abby and Ben, I would have been much more affected at the end (and it’s quite an ending, I assure you). As it is, there’s no real evidence that there’s anything to the relationship worth saving.

Despite this criticism, The Mercy Seat is a very clever piece of theatre and a great addition to the Brainbox repertoire. Belinda Dunbar (Brainbox Project executive producer) and Michael McCall have ably co-directed the play. The post 9/11 dust that coats Abby’s apartment is a nice touch, but I do think better use could have been made of the space – Australian audiences are not as accustomed to ‘untheatrical’ theatre as American audiences are, and although the impressive performances from Barry and Davis are certainly enough to carry the play, more imagination could have gone into the set design and stage direction. Even just the dust and no set, aka Dogville, might have been more effective.

Regardless of any troubles with set design, the collective gasp from a shocked audience at the end of The Mercy Seat was loud enough to have made LaBute, had he been there, a very happy man. This is a tight and provocative piece of modern theatre, with an extraordinary performance by Paul Barry. It’s well worth a look.

The Brainbox Project
The Mercy Seat
by Neil LaBute

Venue: DownStairs at the Maj | 825 Hay St Perth
Season: Tuesday 2 to Saturday 13 September 2008
Times: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday @ 7.30pm
Friday and Saturday @ 8.30pm
Tickets: Standard Ticket $40 Concession $35 Student Rush $10* (Conditions Apply)
Bookings: BOCS Ticketing (08) 9484 1133 / or at any BOCS outlet

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