People who hide sexual relationships from the rest of the world are emotional criminals, especially if they're married, shacked up or involved in a relationship with someone else. The only souls more repugnant are the poor, pitiful, weak-ass victims who tolerate these lies and deceptions.
On the other hand, we've all been there—if not to inhabit their world, then certainly to glimpse it in a sidelong glance, a lustful clutching.
Enter Abby and Ben, the two amazingly self-absorbed and intense characters at the center of Neil LaBute's amazingly self-absorbed and intense play, TheMercySeat,which opens Friday at the Hunger Artists Theater Co. LaBute, who toyed with emotionally devastating relationships in the gimmicky, if compelling, TheShapeofThings,delivers a more mature and powerful look at poisoned unions with this piece.
You can't mention TheMercySeatwithout referencing 9/11; this play wouldn't exist otherwise. It's the morning of Sept. 12, 2001. Ben, an early-30s family guy struggling to keep pace on the corporate hamster wheel, is at the home of Abby, a woman 10 years his senior. She's also his boss. And they fuck. Whether they love each other is debatable. But absolutely, they fuck. Have for three years, and always in the same position—just one of the topics covered in this terribly riveting and harrowing dissection of MARD (mutually assured relationship destruction).
Ben was supposed to be in downtown Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, but he stopped at Abby's for a quick hummer, and his lepetitmortesaved him from a big one. Now Ben is considering using the catastrophe as a vehicle to disappear from his job, wife and children by skipping town with his lover.
So while firefighters and cops impose order on the chaos of rubble-strewn streets, Ben sees an excellent opportunity to chart a new life. Craven, selfish and pussy to be sure, but man, is it instantly recognizable—and a common theme to LaBute's other works (In theCompanyofMen,YourriendsandNeighbors).
That's the beauty of LaBute's script: these people suck—they lie, they cheat, they deceive. But even though they use this calamity to plan an escape route, as well as to flay one another's psychic flesh, you can't help feeling for them. You may hate their guts, but if you don't recognize some part of yourself in some part of them, you haven't lived.
Making these characters relatable falls to director Margaret O'Hora. Though no stranger to the theater (she's the Hunger Artists' managing director), this is her first stab at directing a full-length play. Most first-timers opt for something cute, nostalgic or wistful—words not associated with TheMercySeat.LaBute's characters (portrayed here by Chey Kennedy and Katherine Prenovost) get off on destroying one another, verbally and emotionally, sometimes physically. Yet O'Hora says they're not too out-of-synch with most of the people she knows.
"I think in most circles these days, it's not seen as cool to be positive or upbeat or joyful," she says. "And there is an impulse out there that the only way to get a real emotional response through art is to use pain or to be cynical. That's seen these days as smart."
However Mercyturns out, the choice to stage a play that puts 9/11 and all its flag-waving, jingoistic self-righteousness in a different perspective is brave. "Something the Hunger Artists really care about is telling the other side of the story," O'Hora says. "This play does that. With all the patriotism and everything that's happened after 9/11, I think there needed to be an alternative perspective."
THE MERCY SEAT AT THE HUNGER ARTISTS THEATER, 699-A S. STATE COLLEGE BLVD., FULLERTON, (714) 680-6803. OPENS FRI. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 7 P.M. THROUGH MARCH 20. $12-$15.