Los Angeles Theater Review: THE MERCY SEAT (Vs. Theatre Company at [Inside] the Ford)

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by Sarah Taylor Ellis on March 27, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

THE DAY AFTER THE WORLD CHANGED

Red and blue emergency vehicle lights cut across the New York City skyline outside Abby’s comfortable high rise apartment. It is September 12, 2001, and lovers Abby and Ben delve into the caustic Ground Zero of their relationship in Vs. Theatre Company’s compelling Los Angeles premiere of The Mercy Seat.

Danny Cistone’s remarkably realistic set design, coupled with Derrick McDaniel’s clean lighting, immediately transports the audience to an elite Manhattan apartment. Successful businesswoman Abby adorns her extensive space with a towering bookcase, a real Persian rug, and a slouchy leather loveseat; her pristine kitchen even has a small TV that plays and replays the collapsing Twin Towers.

In this comfy cocoon, Abby and her lover Ben are awkwardly affected and unaffected by 9/11: the images on screen mediate their conversations, dust powders the bottom of Abby’s trousers, and Ben recalls several friends who have undoubtedly died in the attacks – but Abby’s tidy apartment still seems a world apart.

Playwright Neil LaBute probes upper-class guilt and opportunism in the midst of disaster. A master of crude banter, LaBute carefully controls the flow of information between Ben and Abby, and between the characters and the audience; we learn only gradually of the exact relationship between the lovers and the awkward predicament they now face.

9/11 could be just the event to give this couple a clean break from their pasts as they carve out a future together.

Although the play’s cascading arguments grow repetitive at times, Johnny Clark (Ben) and Michelle Clunie (Abby) embody these despicably relatable characters with extraordinary conviction. Clark’s Ben is shell-shocked and silent, poised on the couch with a blank-faced stare as he mulls over the life decisions now before him.

With a deep, grounded voice, Clunie’s Abby clearly wears the pants in the relationship; she directs and drives each conversation, unafraid to provoke anger in her younger partner as she restlessly paces her domain. Although the hyper-realism of the production and the acoustics of the space mean a few swallowed lines, Ron Klier’s marvelous direction crafts clear relationships and maintains the momentum of the play – including those necessary, awkward silences before the storm breaks anew.

The Mercy Seat is an undeniably provocative and engaging look into contemporary values and relationships. Spending a night at the theater with a quarrelling couple may be too realistic for comfort, but this remarkable production by Vs. Theatre Company deserves our attention.

photos by Kimberly-Rose Wolter

The Mercy Seat
Vs. Theatre Company
[Inside] the Ford
ends on April 24, 2011
for tickets, visit http://www.FordTheatres.org

{ 1 comment }

Will Ahrens April 10, 2011 at 10:44 pm

I am not sure I saw the same show as you did. All I saw was 2 bitter people snipe for 90 minutes. There was no relationship present. No struggle. Just bitching.

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