Review: Profile Theatre’s “The Mercy Seat”

 Commendable performances make best of flawed script

MERCY SEAT - Horizontal Press Photo

Profiles Theatre presents:

The Mercy Seat

by Neil LaBute
directed by Joe Jahraus
thru November 15th (buy tickets)

reviewed Catey Sullivan

With The Mercy Seat, Profiles Theatre continues its long collaboration with Neil LaBute as well as its far shorter but oh-so rewarding work with Cheryl Graeff. The former isn’t in top shape with this elliptical and implausible drama. The latter creates a complex, indelible and exhaustingly authentic character within a deeply flawed play.

The two-hander between Graeff and Darrell W. Cox begins on Sept. 12, 2001. Abby (Graeff), enters her New York apartment breathing through a scarf and emitting powdery ash as she unpacks a sack of groceries. On the couch, gazing into space with a thousand-mile shell-shocked stare is Ben (Cox), seemingly oblivious to the insistent ring of his cell phone and unable to process the apocalyptic scene outside.

Mercy V 4 cropped LaBute’s dialogue gives you the sense of eavesdropping. Coming in mid-conversation, the 100-minute drama is more than half over before it becomes quasi-clear precisely what’s going on here. Who is supposed to be on the receiving end of the all-important call that Abby keeps demanding Ben make? Who keeps calling his cell phone? Why is it so important that he stay away from the windows? What is this “meal ticket” he keeps referring to in tandem with the catastrophe unfolding outside?

While LaBute’s intentionally cryptic sentences become tedious at times, the performances are good enough to make them tolerable and imbue them with authenticity, even as the plot holes start to loom ever larger.. Among the most gaping incongruity is the fact that Ben’s cell phone works impeccably on a day when virtually every cell phone in New York City went dead. Between unanswered calls, Ben and Abby engage in a dark-night-of-the-soul debate about heated moral issues. Thankfully, the dialogue sounds not like a debate but a genuine conversation pocked with stops, starts and things blurted out before they are fully thought through. Eventually, we learn that Ben was at Abby’s apartment on the receiving end of oral sex when the planes hit the Towers. Had he gone to work on time instead of stopping by for a morning blow job, he probably would have been killed.

The two at first seem incredibly self-absorbed. While the world around them is in ruins, they argue about oral sex techniques. They attack each other so relentlessly and with such personal venom, it’s difficult to understand why they’re together at all. That she’s a high powered executive; he’s a schlub whose defining characteristic is passivity makes mystery of their mutual attraction all the more baffling. As LaBute eventually clears that matter up (with some graphic sex talk), the other unknowns of the piece come into view as well.

As he so predictably does, LaBute ends with a twist, this one involving Cox’s miraculously functional cell phone.

What works in this piece is Graeff’s performance as a woman who is both powerful and desperate, self-loathing and strident with pride. Cox has less to work with as a classic LaBute male of few redeeming qualities. Together, the two make you wish Profiles would take a stab at Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

The Mercy Seat continues through Nov. 15 AT Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets are $30 and $35. For more information, go to www.profilestheatre.org or call 773/549-1815..

Rating: ««½

 

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