(Review published whatsonstage.com 2/9/11)
The Mercy Seat has a great premise: suppose that instead of working, as they customarily do, in the World Trade Centre on 9/11, a married man and his lover indulge in a little sex at her place and miss getting killed, as a consequence of which they consider ‘disappearing’ themselves and starting a new life together, free from the entanglements of his family, and the difficulties of a secret affair. The play begins on 9/12 as we watch, at close quarters in the Pleasance Studio, the couple flail about in the murky moral waters they have created.
Abby (Janine Ingrid Ulfane) is in her late 40’s, a smart corporate woman, and the boss of Ben (Sean O’Neill) who is 12 years her junior. Her apartment is shrouded in veils, suggesting the dust from the collapsed Towers (an evocative piece of work from designer Nik Corrall). She is concerned about what’s happening outside the apartment, and suggests to Ben that he get out on the streets and help people, whilst knowing this is impossible if the mooted deception is to work. Abby wants her man to be a hero, but she could scarcely have chosen someone less heroic. Ben listens to his phone ring and ring as his wife tries to find him (we can easily fill in her painful side of the story), he whines, he whinges, he acts like a spoilt brat. Yet there is a coarse masculinity under his shirt and tie, and sexual passion, which must be the reasons Abby has stuck with him for three years. She is much more complicated: more intelligent, cultured and more successful in career terms, but she is restless, brittle and hectoring. Her conundrum is: can she run away with a man who isn’t decent enough to treat his wife and kids honourably, and who is such an opportunist he makes a global tragedy all about him?
Ben takes a lot of stick from his mistress: Abby rigorously goads him, trying to establish if he has the right stuff for their escapade. After a poignant section where she graphically describes his lack of emotional connection with her during sex, it’s hard not to see her as masochistic. Why are these two together? It is a relationship that’s very short on affection, but long on need, in his case primarily for sex, and power over his boss, in hers, for a man who will match her highest ideals. But, wretched though their pairing can seem, it is no more implausible than those of many, many couples.
There’s always the danger of artificiality in a duologue in real time about relationship conflict, because in life, arguments can play out over days, incorporating long bouts of inarticulacy and sulking. Once or twice here, it’s hard to believe the characters’ emotional journeys. However, Ulfane and O’Neill are both excellent, showing with raw power his unprincipled weakness, and her impossible yearning. Ultimately, Neil La Bute proves his status as a pitiless observer of male/female relations, and delivers a provocative and eloquent slice of modern debate that demands serious attention.