Review – The Mercy Seat – Glowbox at the Pleasance Theater

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What if something happened that could change your life forever?

What if, instead of it being something good (like winning the lottery), it was a disaster?

What if it meant you could walk away from your life?

Would you do it?

This is one of the key questions that is asked during the play The Mercy Seat. Billed as Neil LaBute’s 9/11 play, in fact it’s only peripherally about 9/11 – its situation is as easily transposed to a tsunami or an earthquake. I’m grateful for this as I didn’t want to see a show that had me reliving the devastation of that day. And it was supposed to be incredibly controversial, I’m guessing because it has some explicit discussions of sex. But it wasn’t wallowing in the disaster and it wasn’t in anyway pornographic.

Instead … well … Okay, I have to tell you, I’m going to put in enough spoilers that you should stop reading here if you don’t want some important plot points discussed. Summary: very good, do go. And stop reading here if you want it your experience to be almost entirely a surprise.

Back to the review. Instead of being about people screwing their way through the devastation (which I was kind of expecting), it’s a cold and painful look at the way people lie to themselves and others about what they want and why. Two lovers, Ben (Sean O’Neill) and Abby (Janine Ulfane), are holed up in her apartment the day after the blast. At first, it seems like Abby is being a complete hardass with Ben, hassling him for lying on the couch in a completely believable state of shock while she’s out trying to get them some food when she thinks he should be helping with the rescue efforts. But as the story unfolds, Abby starts delving more explicitly into what is going wrong with the two of them and why Ben’s wild plans seem utterly senseless. Her dissection of their relationship – while he loudly insists that if the sex is good, then what is there to be wrong, and he knows it’s good – captures perfectly not just their own strange mental states but the insecurities and lies they’ve been telling themselves and each other to keep things going for the last three years.

What blew me away about this play was Neil LaBute’s effortless creation of naturalistic dialogue and characters. I spent an hour and forty minutes watching Ben and Ellie bicker, tease, berate, kiss, push, and question each other, and not once did I feel like I was listening to something written. The actors have to take credit, too – Janine Ulfane and Sean O’Neill were on stage for the entire time and they didn’t let up. In fact, they kept the pressure on so tightly I felt like just anything, just anything, might happen between the two of them in this lawless space where death was at the front and all the known rules of the universe were suspended.

I was worn out at the end of this show but excited about what I’d just seen. This is a timeless play despite having a very specific setting, and very much worth reviving. I’m really pleased I got to see it for free as a guest of Glowbox, but at £12 it’s a screaming deal despite the occasional bad sightlines and sound quality in the Pleasance and at 1:40 it still gets you home at a good time. In short: go.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, September 1st, 2011. It continues through September 18th.)

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