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Theater review: ‘The Mercy Seat’ at [Inside] the Ford

March 24, 2011 |  6:10 pm

The Mercy Seat_2NC The aftermath of 9/11 figures prominently in Neil LaBute’s “The Mercy Seat,” but despite setting his 2002 two-hander in New York on the morning after the terrorist attacks, the theater’s foremost chronicler of bad behavior steers clear of broader political commentary. As always, his focus is on selfishness — in this case, how it thrives even during a moment of national selflessness.

By invoking the highly charged wounds of 9/11, LaBute’s atypical historical specificity proves double-edged in the play’s uneven L.A. premiere from VS. Theatre Company. On the plus side, the chaotic setting creates a unique moral quandary for philandering husband Ben (Johnny Clark), who would have perished in the World Trade Center if he hadn’t stopped on his way to work for a rendezvous with his mistress, Abby (Michelle Clunie), who is also his boss. A day later, Ben still hasn’t contacted his family; he wants to use the opportunity to simply disappear with Abby and start their lives over, without the messy responsibilities of divorce and child custody.

LaBute’s spare, impeccably crafted dialogue strips away layers of self-deception in a souring relationship well past the infatuation stage: these two know each other far too well to salvage love’s last flickering. While the performers capably handle the abundant irony and sarcasm, the equally important power struggle dynamics that should be in play throughout don’t clearly surface until the signature LaButean sucker-punch. 

Director Ron Klier’s pacing is still finding its footing, particularly in the early going, and some staging choices warrant reconsideration — keeping Ben and Abby at unnatural opposite ends of the wide stage, for example, or the unnecessary, heavy-handed sound montages.

While the 9/11 backdrop provides the opening for the play’s central dilemma, on the flip side it’s an easy shortcut to dramatic heft — invoking a context with ready-made significance rather than building the stakes organically from within, as we find in LaBute’s best work. Still, “The Mercy Seat’s” merciless insight into the “ground zero” of selfishness is sobering and compelling.

–- Philip Brandes

“The Mercy Seat,” [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 24. $20 (Wednesdays pay-what-you-can). (323) 461-3673 or www.fordtheatres.org. Running time: 2 hours.

MORE THEATER REVIEWS:

Theater review: 'The Book of Mormon' at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre

Theater review: 'bonded' at the Los Angeles Theatre Center

Theater review: 'Girls Talk' at the Lee Strasberg Theatre

Photo: Michelle Clunie and Johnny Clark. Credit: Kimberly-Rose Wolter.

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