What if a national tragedy offered you the chance to start a new life, in a new city, without the complications of a marriage you no longer wanted to be part of and children you didn’t want to put through the hell of a divorce? What if there was someone else in your life, someone you’d been seeing secretly for several years, someone who could start that new life with you somewhere far, far away if you simply pretended to be one of the missing-presumed-dead? Would you make the break for freedom? Would she be willing to join you?

This is the dilemma faced by Ben Harcourt in Neil Labute’s The Mercy Seat, now getting its first Los Angeles production—and a terrific one at that—at [Inside] The Ford.

Anyone familiar with Labute’s work knows from the get-go that neither Ben (Johnny Clark) nor his paramour Abby Prescott (Michelle Clunie) are liable to be especially likable, nor is their romance likely to be all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. Still, what makes Labute’s highly personal response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 such an engrossing and ultimately satisfying one are the complexities he gives both Ben and Maggie, complexities that make us first sympathize with one and despise the other and then vice versa, and then vice versa again.

Labute reveals his intentions oh-so gradually. Abby arrives at an elegant, spacious New York loft to find Ben seated on a loveseat, cell phone ringing and ringing and ringing in his hand, a small, nearly muted TV back in the kitchenette playing and replaying scenes of towers being flown into and terrified Manhattanites running for their lives. “You couldn’t. Right?” accuses Abby, Labute keeping her words deliberately cryptic. “Just couldn’t do it…” Abby rebukes Ben for his heartlessness to the events of the previous day, finally goading him into platitudes like “It’s horrific. A complete and, and, and utter…tragedy. It’s beyond belief. Biblical.” Soon, however, Ben makes it obvious that what’s really on his mind are “the implications here. What it means to us, our future.”

Appearances notwithstanding, Abby is a dozen years older than Ben, a fact we are made aware of by cultural references (to The Amazing Kreskin, to Audie Murphy) he doesn’t get, and by Ben’s allegation that Abby treats him like one of her “underlings,” the younger man preferring to define his job as a position that “supports” hers, “but I’m not ‘under’ you. You do not tower over me in some literal or figurative way.” Clearly, there is an imbalance of power in this relationship, but leave it to Labute to shift that imbalance back and forth between so-called boss and supposed subordinate, just as he does with our sympathies.

The ambivalence we feel towards Ben and Abby (she’s a bitch, he’s a victim, he’s a prick, she’s just a woman in love) makes it hard to root for either one or the other for any length of time, or even to give a damn whether they make their getaway—at least at first. Still, it’s not necessary to empathize with him or her in order to remain gripped by The Mercy Seat from start to finish, Labute adroitly building suspense by insuring that his edge-of-their-seats audience never quite know how all this is going to play out in the end.

The Mercy Seat is the latest offering of Clark’s and Kimberly-Rose Wolter’s award-winning Vs. Theatre Company, its co-artistic director once again doing bang-up work in a tough role, one which has him keeping a great deal hidden inside, leaving us to wonder just what Ben is thinking, what he is capable of, and what he is unwilling to do.

Vs. scored a coup in casting Clunie, whose five seasons on Showtime’s Queer As Folk will surely prove a box office draw for the LGBT community. Bringing an electric volatility to a character who, unlike Ben, says exactly what she is thinking, Clunie reveals a vulnerability that tempers Abby’s (pardon my French) cuntier moments and makes her one Labute’s most well-rounded female creations.

Together, The Mercy Seat’s two stars are absolutely in sync, with palpable stage chemistry—personal, sexual, and even (when Labute allows it) romantic.

Like David Mamet, Labute writes in distinct rhythmic patterns (though considerably less artificially). Add to that a particularly large number of deliberately incomplete sentences and overlapping lines (each one clearly specified in the script) and the result is conversation that sounds absolutely spontaneous yet requires letter-perfect delivery, something both Clark and Clunie do to perfection

No actors, regardless of how talented, can exist in a vacuum, and director Ron Klier shares major credit for his stars’ nuanced performances, as well as for some particularly effective blocking which makes use of the entire, expansive set.

Scenic designer Danny Cistone’s scenic design is a marvel of style and detail, as finely conceived and rendered a set as you’ll see in a theater the size of [Inside] The Ford, lit to mood-evocative perfection by Derrick McDaniel. Klier’s sound design does much to heighten tension. Gelareh Khalioun has designed a pair of costumes just right for the play’s ninety real-time minutes.

The Mercy Seat is produced by Andrew Carlberg, Clark, and Wolter. Tommy Dunn is production stage manager and (along with Kelly Lohman) assistant director. Mercedes Manning is art director and associate set designer.

Any Los Angeles premiere of a Neil Labute play is bound to be buzz-worthy, and for one as fine as the one now playing at [Inside] The Ford the buzz is likely to be loud indeed. Trust me. You will be talking about The Mercy Seat long after its striking final tableau fades to black.

[Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
March 30, 2011
Photos: Kimberly-Rose Wolter

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