Ashes to Ashes

The set is spare and symmetrical, an apartment dominated by a bank of gray-lit windows and furnishings in varying shades of black and gray. This is downtown New York, ash-covered in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. We hear the sound of a plane engine getting louder and louder, newscasters' voices, a man saying "Shit" over and over again.

What kind of person would seize on a disaster of this magnitude to further an extramarital affair? Ben Harcourt is seated on the angular couch. With the city in chaos around him, he has seen an opportunity to leave his wife, who will assume he has died, and start a new life with his lover, Abby. He will later refer to the attack, without irony, as an opportunity that "fell right into our laps."

Playwright Neil LaBute is best known for the film In the Company of Men, which depicts the amoral behavior of young men in the corporate world. He is famed for the savagery with which he explores the squirmier and more equivocal parts of the human psyche. In The Mercy Seat, he has created a couple of contemptible people; his genius is to have made them comprehensible, even intermittently likable.

Ben is a weakling and a compromiser, quite prepared to ignore the persistent trilling of his cell phone and leave his wife and children to their fear and grief. And yet when he says he wants the words "He was okay" on his tombstone, it moves us. Because even though he isn't remotely okay, part of him wants so much to be.

At first, Abby seems the more sympathetic of the two characters. She appears horrified by Ben's unconcern over the tragedy. She goads him to express some sorrow. She insists that he call his wife and make a clean break with her. But she's also cruel and monumentally selfish -- perhaps even more so than Ben. He at least agonizes periodically over his two young daughters, while she is entirely indifferent to what her romance with their father might be doing to them. By the end you realize that she wants Ben to phone his family not because it's the right thing to do, but because if he doesn't, he'll have to leave Manhattan -- and she'll have to sacrifice her high-paying job and her life there to go with him.

The play brilliantly catches the rhythms of a failing relationship, the words misinterpreted, the moments of compromise shattered by a clumsy observation or flash of malice. The usual jostling for power between lovers is exacerbated here by the fact that Abby is older than Ben, and his boss. The script is taut, incisive and very funny, with a straightforward style that nonetheless allows for complexity. Even as Ben and Abby torment each other, you know they're also in love. And while you hate Ben's scheming, you can't help empathizing with his desire to ditch his muddled life and start again.

In some ways, The Mercy Seat reminded me of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, which Paragon staged a few years ago. Like Sartre's protagonists, Ben and Abby are trapped in a room together and apparently destined to torment each other forever (though Abby does leave once to buy cheese). For them, too, "hell is other people."

Paragon director Warren Sherrill has mounted a first-rate production, with Michael Stricker as a shlubby but periodically stung-into-action Ben, and Martha Harmon Pardee as an alternately dominating and defeated Abby. These actors give their characters crystal-clear outlines without ever turning them into caricatures. Their timing is swift and precise, and they work wonderfully together. If you want a lesson in stagecraft, watch their silent responses to each other's words. Michael Andrew Doherty's sound design and David LaFont's set also deserve mention.

September 11 unleashed a lot of hypocrisy in our society, with certain commentators and politicians trying to convince us there was only one permissible way to respond. In that context, the brutal honesty of The Mercy Seat feels bracing. Bertolt Brecht told us long ago that history's great tragedies don't banish petty self-interest. People routinely profiteer under the cover of unrest and war. Powerful people profiteer mightily; some of them even start wars for the purpose of profiteering. Small people get what they can. How long did it take before some of those who lost family members at the World Trade Center hired lawyers and sued for large sums of money? Ben and Abby's crime is not that they are failing to pay sufficient lip service to the horror of September 11. Rather, it's their self-absorbed indifference to the pain they cause others.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman