Blogosphere / Way Off Broadway


'The Mercy Seat' & Trying to Disappear

Neil Labute is a playwright with a very specific model of characters.  Usually, they are white-collar people in a selfish world. Mostly, they tend to veer toward the unlikeable. Always, they are interesting characters, but it’s finding the part of them to like that can sometimes be a challenge. Labute’s The Mercy Seat is a play created out of the events of 9/11. In the wake of that tragedy, Labute asked himself if someone would ever use an event such as that to disappear and start a new life. So in that, a two-character play asking this very question was born. 

Ben (Johnny Clark) is a mid-30s businessman with a wife and two kids who was supposed to have a meeting in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Instead, he went to the loft of his boss and lover Abby (Michelle Clunie) for a bit of fun.  When the towers came crashing down, he thought to himself that this could be his way out of having to tell his wife their marriage was over. And be with Abby. 

The play opens the following morning with Ben sitting almost comatose on Abby’s couch, ignoring his ringing phone. Abby enters having just gone shopping and already pissed off. Basically, she wants Ben to take some action. You see, she asked him to please make the call to his wife to tell her it was over so they didn’t have to run around on the sly. But when the planes hit the WTC, the world changed and so did his priorities. Instead, he’s been running scenarios through his head trying to figure out if there is a way for him to get what he wants without having to inject hurt into someone else. 

Abby, meanwhile, seems generally irritated with Ben, constantly making sarcastic comments and forever commenting on his young age. (They are 12 years apart.) The two bicker and spat like a long-married couple with only an occasion here and there where they confess any real feelings for each other. And just when things seem to settle, Ben reveals his plan for them to escape which riles Abby up into a whole new set of dissatisfactions. 

The Mercy Seat is interesting on a relationship level, where two people are staying together for all the wrong reasons. In fact, watching the characters interact I was not sure exactly how they were even attracted to each other. She thought of him as a kid, he thought she was a cold bitch. He couldn’t even have sex with her without doing it doggie-style even though later he admitted this to be “intimate” to him. (Which is a far more interesting subject, by the way.) The two really seemed to hate each other so all I kept thinking was, “Oh my God, just break up already!” 

While the interaction is interesting on a “boy these two are fucked up” type of way, I grew frustrated with them and finally, I couldn’t pry my anger away from Ben. Here is a man who is willing to give up ever seeing his kids again, just so he can be with a woman who he has decent sex with and that’s about it. These two are incredibly wrong for each other yet he’s considering destroying his wife and kids by pretending to be dead. It’s a disgusting thought and made me dismiss him and not care for him at all. Because Abby only softens twice in the show and the rest of the time is incredibly snide, I really just wanted him to say “fuck you” and leave, but then again, the two deserved each other.   

That said, I liked the actors a lot, especially Clunie who does spiteful well and is a magnetic presence on stage. We all know someone like her and her exasperation at Ben is valid, her character just goes about it the completely wrong way.  She really seems like a woman who is going to spend many years alone. And perhaps that’s what she’s doing: self-sabotaging herself by not only having a relationship with her employee, but doing so with someone who is not available. 

The set design is amazing, completely transforming the set into a NYC loft. Sound design is key prior to the show starting where we hear a constant stream of interviews, news reports and songs related to 9/11 and the themes it represents. 

Unfortunately for me, the question of whether or not you’d disappear using the catalyst of a tragedy gets lost amidst the mess of these two people. I’d almost like to see the question asked with two people who are truly in love in a healthy way, but are both trying not to hurt other people. Then, the question can be the focus. Here, the focus is on two awful people, tumbling down like the buildings themselves, killing everything inside. And maybe that was Labute’s point. Which is why it’s a play that can cause so much discussion. 

Which begs the question: if you had the ability to disappear and start again… would you? 

This is a question I’ve pondered from time to time when things just get too much. When I feel like I’m fucking everything up in my life or when everyone around me overwhelms me so much I just want a clean slate. To make myself over into the person I want to be and bring new people and situations into my life with no overt baggage from the past. Of course, the baggage will always find us and in 10 years time I’d probably want another clean sweep. 

But don’t you just want to do things differently, even just for a small amount of time? Take a trip with someone you don’t know and be someone else for just a moment? Do things you’ve never done before and just escape from life even for just a few days? I mean, a vacation is good and all but you still bring life with you. You bring your expectations… your bags… 

But to spontaneously take off…. alone or maybe with an acquaintance... and just be a different person for a few days.  Change your name. Dress in a different way. Act in unexpected ways. Be the person you wish you had formed yourself into. A mini-makeover, if you will.

We might not have 9/11 to use as the mechanism to get lost forever, but perhaps for a few days we should all disappear. Close our Facebook, shut off our phones, leave town and just have the adventure of not existing anymore. Perhaps when we do, we’ll find how to take the best parts of the person we are and mix them with the person we want to be in order to find the self we would never want to disappear. 

The Mercy Seat plays at [Inside the Ford] at the Ford Amphitheatre from now until April 24. Visit or call (323) 461-3673 for tickets and more information. General admission is $20.

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