Theater Review - ‘The Mercy Seat’ is pure gold

Oct 10, 2006 at 5:20 pm
In the Old Testament, the Mercy Seat represents the throne of God. It’s the golden cover on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, with two cherubim facing each other. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest sacrificed a bull or goat on the Mercy Seat. Nick Cave’s “Mercy Seat” is a song about an inmate awaiting the electric chair. Neil LaBute combines the two images in this intense drama about inappropriate reactions to 9/11.

As the play opens, Ben (Andy Pyle) sits like a condemned man on his lover’s sofa, unable to answer his incessantly ringing cell phone. It’s the morning after 9/11 and his wife is trying to find out if he’s alive. On his way to a meeting the day before, Ben opted for a quickie with his boss, Abby (Susan Shumate), thus escaping certain death. Incredibly, Ben sees the catastrophe as his “meal ticket” to a new life, as he will be presumed dead.

Younger and less intelligent than Abby, Ben isn’t ashamed of his cultural ignorance. He’s only interested in knowledge that will further his career. She mocks him for this, but he boasts, “The American way is to come out on top. It’s what we’re good at.” Their banter is reminiscent of George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” without the underlying love. Ben and Abby are too self-absorbed to even know each other.

The play revolves around their decision of whether to go through with Ben’s outrageous plan. They flirt with honesty as they let their true colors show over the course of the argument.

Director Tad Chitwood elicits electrifying performances from Pyle and Shumate as their characters run the gamut of emotion from anger to tenderness in this gripping drama.