On Sept. 12, 2001, Ben Harcourt, necktie loosened, sits hunched on the sofa in a Manhattan apartment. While images of catastrophe flash across the screen, the cellphone in his hand keeps ringing. But he stares into space, neither answering nor calling. Then his lover Abby Prescott, carrying groceries, walks in, shuts off Ben's phone and asks, "So … did you call?"
Ben means to, but he doesn't.
Is it post-9/11 shock, survivor's guilt or something else? Does the crisis present an opportunity to this couple? Can Ben, presumed dead on 9/11, take advantage of his missing-person status and head into the sunset with Abby? Will he phone home and make a clean break with his wife, his children and his mortgage? Will he return to his former life and his office, if it's still there? Or will he sit paralyzed on his lover's sofa, unable to form a coherent decision?
"The Mercy Seat," Neil LaBute's acrimonious day-after drama brought to your home by Los Altos Stage Company, poses these questions. And since you're in your own living room watching this livestreamed play, you have a choice: Sit spellbound, as I did, or walk out of the room, as did my husband.
The hour and a half, two-person drama, played without intermission, is both mesmerizing and unrelenting. Picture Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" replete with expletives and explicit sex talk but without Albee's prized comic relief. This is "The Mercy Seat," ostensibly about redemption, according to the biblical references, yet packed with unremitting heaviness. And if you've missed the point, the tragic TV news clips and sirens echo the desolation onstage.
As a newscaster on the screen proclaims, "We are at war," another war takes place inside the apartment not far from the twin towers. It's the war between man and woman, and in this case the woman seems to have the upper hand. Melissa Jones plays Abby, a 40-ish alpha female both in her workplace and in the relationship. She may not carry a whip, but she shows no mercy. Her real-life husband Drew Benjamin Jones plays Ben, her nerdly 30-ish subordinate whose difficult choices sink him into inaction.
"That's what I like about you, Ben," Abby says sardonically. "Your absolutely rigid commitment to being a flake." She tells him he should change his name to "But" because "there's always a 'but' when you talk to Ben Harcourt."
Yet in some ways, Ben may have the upper hand. If he were to return to his wife and family in the suburbs, Abby would be alone. And if he were to go AWOL, would she join him, walking away from her high-powered position?
When "The Mercy Seat" premiered off Broadway in December 2002, starring Liev Schreiber and Sigourney Weaver, the play drew praise from New York critics. It "casts a less-than-glowing light on man's dark side in the face of disaster," wrote Robert Dominguez of the Daily News.
By bringing this dark drama into our homes at the tail end of a pandemic, when audiences are more likely to be ready for something uplifting, Los Altos Stage Company is taking a chance, artistically speaking. This provocative play, pitted with brutal language and graphic sexual references, is not exactly a crowd-pleaser. But the gripping drama, admirably directed by Los Altos Stage Company Production Manager Allie Bailey, is a brilliant theater piece.
Gary Landis, the company's executive artistic director, takes on the challenges of sound, lighting, set design and livestreaming, adapting a stage drama to the small screen. This powerfully performed play offers a window into the tough choices men and women make, or avoid, amid difficult times. And if you can't stand the heat onstage, you're already home.
Remaining performances of "The Mercy Seat" will be livestreamed Friday, June 18, and Saturday, June 19, at 7 p.m. and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 20. Tickets are $30 per device. More information is available at losaltosstage.org.
Email Contributor Janet Silver Ghent at [email protected]