Friday, September 11, 2009

Mercy at the Strand

The Strand Theater's new production of Neil La Bute's The Mercy Seat is well worth a trip to their intimate theater in the North Station district.
The taut play features two lovers who happen to find themselves in the mistress's New York apartment at the moment of the 9/11 attack. The attack could permit Ben Harcourt, the male paramour who should have been at his office in the World Trade Center at the moment of the attack, to escape from a marriage that has gone sour. He dreams of fleeing with his mistress (who just happens to be his boss) and restarting life under a new identity. It could also permit the female paramour, Abby Prescott, to flee a job she constantly squawks about and start a new, more romantic life. The choices aren't simple, however, as marital duty and moral realism start to dawn on the stranded love duo.
In La Bute's usual manner, the discussion of these strange alternatives quickly degenerates into an obscenity-laced row about sexual harassment, family duty, romantic disenchantment, personal obsessions, and civic duty toward fellow citizens.
Ably directed by Danielle Young, Kasey Arnold and M. Brett Rohrer bring this one-act diatribe to life as they permit the emotions of their quarreling characters to rub each other raw. The bitter dance of recrimination and possible escape convincingly escalates in intensity until the play arrives at its quiet, ambiguous conclusion. The realistic set, complete with 9/11 wreckage dust peppering the furniture and costumes, underscores the intensity of the Arnold/Rohrer duel.
La Bute's script does not completely convince. Why would Abby even think of abandoning her powerful job for a man she humiliates as a selfish coward? Why would such an obviously intelligent woman (her lines are full of crisp literary and historical allusions) even consider a plot to disappear that clearly can't work? And why would Ben so passionately love a woman who insults him and denigrates him at every turn? For all the script's flaws, the Strand's production powerfully brings out the black humor and spiraling bitterness of an illicit relationship that has shattered two psyches as devastatingly as the terrorists shattered the WTC in the ashes of 9/11.

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