Review: The Mercy Seat ~ theatre notes

Monday, February 11, 2008

Review: The Mercy Seat

The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute, directed by Alex Papps. Designed by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Stelios Karagiannis, sound by Alex Papps and Mike Levi. With Jane Badler and Simon Wood. Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Red Stitch, until March 8. Bookings: (03) 9533 8083

Neil LaBute takes on the persona of the gritty, macho American playwright (as patented by David Mamet) bigtime. He is a controversialist, a Mormon who was “disfellowshipped” (the stage before being excommunicated) for his negative portrayals of the faithful, and is a prominent member of the "new wave" of US playwrights. In a typical flourish of rhetoric, in which he claimed more or less that American playwriting had lost its balls, LaBute recently accused most writers of being “pussies”.

"We sit back and watch the world go by, writing down the things we find funny or sad while trying to make a buck off it," he said. "We use our lives, or the lives of others, for personal gain, and we defend it by saying it's 'in the public domain' or 'true', and therefore OK to slop around in someone else's pain."

It’s a statement which calls up the ambivalence I feel towards LaBute. He uncovers a certain (partial) truth that writers would do well to remember; on the other hand, the implied sexualised tone of the criticism (you can be sure that LaBute isn’t referring to felines when he says writers are pussies) underlines a macho posturing that is difficult, as it were, to swallow.

I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse LaBute of writing misogynistic plays (others have), but the line between portraying misogyny and endorsing it can be perilously thin. And his plays can get uncomfortably close to blaming feminism and the supposed rise of the strong, autonomous woman for disempowering men, identifying women as the real cause of bad male behaviour.

As LaBute says, “I make trouble for a living”. I share LaBute’s open admiration for playwrights like Caryl Churchill, Howard Barker and Harold Pinter, and admire his bracing desire to ruffle some feathers among the certainties of comfortable American liberalism. But I sometimes suspect that ruffling these feathers takes the mildest of breezes.

In other words, is LaBute the radical force he claims to be? Certainly not on the evidence of The Mercy Seat, a play that bruised some sensitivities because it deals with the aftermath of 9/11 and takes issue with the rhetoric of heroism that surrounded that catastrophe. It was one of the first theatrical responses to the terrorist attacks, and on its premiere in New York in 2002 it no doubt had a resonance that it signally lacks in Melbourne in 2008.

As LaBute describes it, The Mercy Seat focuses “on the selfish acts of my protagonist on a day that most Americans still want to believe was filled with heroism and personal sacrifice. Bullshit. …That day did indeed see many heroic acts, but not everybody who died was a saint, and a good many people felt the ol' US of A finally got what was coming.”

On the surface, the premise is intriguing. Ben Harcourt (Simon Wood) is a married man who is having an affair with his boss, Abby Prescott (Jane Badler). When the Twin Towers were attacked, he was supposed to be inside; but instead he skipped work and headed over to Abby’s place for a swift head job. But the earth moved in rather unexpected ways, leaving the apartment covered in a thin layer of dust and both Ben and Abby shocked and dazed.

The play opens a day later. Ben is still at Abby’s apartment, hiding out. His first response to the disaster is to see it as an opportunity: it’s a chance to leave his wife and children without the mess of painful explanations and to make a run for a new life (or, as he has it, to “walk into the sunset”). He is refusing to answer the frantic calls from his family, who believe he is among the dead. Narcissistic, inarticulate and irredeemably selfish, Ben is revealed to be that classic LaBute creation, a jerk.

On the other hand, the terrorist attacks prompt Abby – shocked, but only up to a point, by Ben’s self-interested response to the deaths of thousands of people – to question some of the verities that have driven her life. This doesn’t prevent her from being seduced by the fantasy of beginning again with a clean slate, the chance to sweep away the lies and start afresh. But the self-revelation that is the engine of this kind of play has a twist that she doesn’t expect.

The central mystery is why a seemingly smart woman would spend more than a single night with this man, whom at one point she claims is merely “a piece of ass”. He is a particularly unimaginative lover, who in three years of enthusiastic bonking has never once looked her in the face, and whose erotic inventiveness is limited to banging her from behind and a little oral sex. (She is so bored she makes shopping lists during the act). Does she put up with him because she’s unconsciously expiating some feminine guilt about earning more money than he does? On the other hand, why is he so obsessed with a woman who is either a mass of spikes or a swamp of neediness?

Who knows? Who cares? I lost interest pretty early on as a certain familiar depression settled over what’s loosely known as my aesthetic senses. The conversation continues in real time, with a bunch of predictably unpredictable revelations and the familiar diversionary monologues that expose the characters’ “real” thoughts, cranking up the emotional mechanics in ways that recall American television or film conventions more than the radical unexpectedness of, say, a Pinter or a Barker.

It’s easy to map the personal onto the political here: the national self-absorption that is blind to the suffering of others, even the suffering of its own; the corrupt corporate ambition that rewards success above all, no matter what it takes to get there. As Ben says: ''I always take the easy route, do it faster, simpler, you know, whatever it takes to get done, be liked, get by. That's me. Cheated in school . . . took whatever I could get from whomever I could take it from.''

But somehow all these metaphorical speculations end up feeling banal: it's full of ideas that are legibly signalled but that fail to lodge at any intellectual or emotional depth. There’s something important missing that I can’t quite put my finger on, although I think it comes down to a certain formal slackness, a lack of theatrical poetic and linguistic excitement. Put The Mercy Seat next to, say, Sarah Kane's Blasted or Pinter's The Homecoming, and it practically goes miaow with pussiness. And without this sense of poetic, the work isn't much more than a low-octane version of the battle of the sexes exemplified in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

It’s not the fault of Alex Papps’s production, which features a beautiful design by Peter Mumford that exploits the claustrophobic intimacy of the space: an ordinary living room covered with a thin layer of dust with the shadows of objects painted on the walls, an uneasy allusion to the shadows that imprinted walls when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Backstage a wide doorway opens onto darkness, a nice metaphor for the emptiness of the lives portrayed here.

Jane Badler and Simon Wood work hard, and produce creditable performances that never quite manage to transcend the limitations of the play. Wood has the harder job: portraying a character who at times verges on the catatonic can sometimes result in a catatonic performance, and he doesn’t always escape this danger. Badler manages the spiky vulnerability without revealing what exists underneath the spikes. There’s a fair bit of aimless prowling around the apartment, but I guess you have to do something with a play which is basically two talking heads. It’s a longish 90 minutes.

A cryptic version of this review appears in today's Australian.


DA said...

Neither gender emerges rosy from The Mercy Seat, if I'm reading your lament right.

Both characters embody moral vacuums - or swamps at best. BEN can't ignore the convenience of the disaster, and ABBY begrudges the primordial piece-of-ass appeal that a lummox like BEN holds - despite her station and superior intellect. He's no hero, and neither's she. They prowl around; they prowl apart.

Arguably the higher ground is hers for reason of being single, and not much else, as venal as that makes BEN.

But the key to the play is their self-absorption. Not a colleague, not a spouse, not a kid gets a specific, personal note. Rather, BEN and ABBY pace out their realm's perimeters, and eventually opt to abdicate.

I loved the play. I take your point about the meanders, and overall shortage of patent theatricality, however the rhythms and perilous arguments were compelling - as was the production.

naive theatre goer said...

I largely agree with "da". Both characters are essentially weak people and neither gives us anything but an occasional glimse at the possession of redeeming features. Ben is a spineless coward, with delusions of drifting into a romantic trouble-free sunset without a trace of conflict or messiness. Abby often seems like the classic weak "other woman", having waited self-deceptively forever for her married lover to publicly declare for her.

As for what either ever saw in each other, at this stage of the relationship its going to be pretty damn hard for an outsider to see what on earth it could be on either side. We're only given some hints and suggestions but not much more (e.g., his sudden interest in her when she got promoted and he did not, possibly hoping to use her to get promted himself? her looking for an easily available diversion from her workaholic existence?).

Like "da", I found it absorbing albeit gruelling and I don't know if it needed to be quite that long. Alison comments that it is like a low-octane version of "Who's Afraid of Virgina Wolff?". True enough perhaps but I wouldn't regard that as a serious criticism. If things of this type had to measure up to "Virginia Wolff" before they were worth attending, we wouldn't be going to the theatre very often.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi DA: just to be clear, the gender question didn't particularly bother me in The Mercy Seat. I was just noting in passing that LaBute's plays have been accused of being misogynistic, and saying that, myself, I didn't especially feel that they were. I suspect that in a funny way the gender question with LaBute is maybe a bit of a red herring. He can, quite rightly, defend himself on the grounds that both the men and women in his work are equally horrible (although I do have a question, as I said in the review, about the feminism-disempowering-men idea - after all, men were horrible to women - and to other men - long before the Suffragettes and Ms Greer). And the question of gender isn't essentially what bothers me about his plays.

Hi NTG - nice to see you back! It didn't fit my definition of gruelling, unless being mildly bored is gruelling. Horses for courses, I guess! Yes, of course, not everyone can be a genius, unless you're Pasternak (that wonderful story about his translating Shakespeare and his comment, "well, we're all geniuses here, aren't we?") But LaBute does place himself squarely with Churchill, Barker, Mamet and Pinter, and I think that's where some just comparisons might be made.

Chris Boyd said...

'Cryptic' because your words are cross?! (Sorry.) Actually, reading the version of your review in Teh Oz, it does look like you had a subby with too much time on his/her hands.

The fingerprint-dust ash reminded me of Pompeii. People caught in the act an' all that.

And if I make a third trivial remark, I kept thinking of that Leo Sayer song 'Moonlighting' while watching the play.

I enjoyed the production (after the terrible opening minutes on the first night... the fake phone ring tone had me feeling nauseous!) and the chessboard machinations. LaBute's insights into relationships are pretty bloody extraordinary. (He is married to a psychiatrist or psychologist. I forget which.)

As for his Mormonism, he was a convert I think.

Alison Croggon said...

To be fair to the Oz, the crypticness is due to my trying to say what I said on the blog in 400 words, which is frankly impossible; it might have been better, in a way, to try to say less. (I don't send them this version of the review and expect them to cut it back). The frustrating thing about those word limits is that it's impossible to do more than make a series of unqualified statements: but them's the breaks... I can't see print reviewing expanding its review coverage, however nice it would be. The Oz is, on the other hand, the only newspaper I've ever worked for that consults on cuts.

AF said...

Both Ben and Abby refer to the attack as a "meal ticket". Unless I'm missing something, this doesn't make any sense (deliberate malapropism pointing to Ben's lumox-ness?).

Abby cries at one point: "...while you were having your proverbial cock sucked!" I don’t see how his cock was in any sense proverbial in this case (unless I'm being naive--is there some common/proverbial usage I'm missing?).

I think LaBute is probably not a massively talented playwright.

The scenario is quite neat (that's his strength). The characters (at least, when I seem them described by DA and NTG) seem interesting enough. I just thought that the writing and the writer's handling of the material, was bad.

The play would, I think, have worked better as one of those elegant little studies in tension--trapped in the apartment, the apocalypse on their doorstep, even more pacing--but LaBute's concern is with mudslinging, not tension. His brand (I'd say it's a brand) of war between the sexes is exclusively set on the bedroom battleground. Both characters care little about the other's intellectual life; intellectual interaction is reduced to "whatever", "duly noted", "all right then", "fine then", "Jesus, Abby", "Christ, Ben", and "it's settled then". There is a lot of that. Apparently it is idiomatic; and perhaps it is, but it is also artless. At least, it is artless in the Mercy Seat. In the Mercy Seat it is predictable to the point of being tedious.

Maybe part of this artlessness is to do with the direction. The set did look great, but some of the directorial choices were really daggy. Why did the play begin with the sound of a plane passing overhead? (It sounded to me like the a plane taking off although it was no doubt meant to be a plane coming in to land). Why did the play finish with the sound of a mobile phone ringing? This all seemed kind of cheap ... artless.

I think this artlessness probably wasn't so much the fault of the director. There is really not much you can do with dialogue like this:

ABBY: Do you love me?
BEN: Well, Jesus, I mean, of course I do.
ABBY: Then say it.
BEN: This is crazy. You know I do!
ABBY: I need to hear it.
BEN: Ok. I *love* you.
ABBY [sarcastic]: I feel all funny inside.


ABBY: Oh, occasionally you go down on me—occasionally—and that’s only because you think that you’re good. And, for the record, you’re not that good—
BEN: Hey!
ABBY: You’re okay, but you’re not great.

Really, just Google "do you love me" and "I need to hear it".

The "pumping-me-from-behind" monologue was also pretty artless and for some reason was set up as the ethical crux of the play (a *super* artless exposition on Ben's unwillingness to face his problems). This seems to be LaBute’s level of comfort.


In the bedroom playwrights come and go,
Talking of fellatio

I don't say that it needs to be theatrical or to have "theatricality". I just ask that it have some artistry--that there be some effort in the script. Those are different things, aren't they?

Abe Pogos said...

I was engaged with the play at various points, but it seemed obvious from about thirty minutes in that the protagonists' lives were going to be shit whether they stayed together or not. As a consequence the play had zero suspense for me.

Had I really believed that their transgressions might open up the possibility of real happiness between them, then the play might've given me something to wrestle with. Instead I left feeling very disappointed.

I enjoyed LaBute's movie version of In the Company of Men. I felt it had a tragic dimension and a sense of journey. Mercy Seat felt like watching two tennis players engaged in an endless deuce game in the dead rubber of a Davis Cup tie between Uzbhekistan and Costa Rica. The score is important to the players concerned, but in the larger scheme of things who really cares? (No offence meant to our friends in Uzbhekistan and Costa Rica).

Alison Croggon said...

As far as a play is concerned, I think "artistry" and "theatricality" are synonyms...

AF said...

Yes. Possibley. I was venting pique; struggling to express myself. Perhaps I just meant originality, imagination, ability.