“The Mercy Seat” Theatre Review: 9/12 Attacks On The Homefront
Profiles Theatre presents
Written by Neil LaBute
Directed by Joe Jahraus
9/11 is an unforgettable day. The next day, not so much! Although no one ever asks “where were you on 9/12?” that is the chosen setting for Profile Theatre’s production of The Mercy Seat. Among the ruins of the 2001 terrorists’ attacks, a couple contemplates their survival. Ben and Abby have been having an affair for three years. Ben is married with two kids. Abby is his boss. Ben wants to utilize the tragedy’s chaos for him and Abby to run away together to the Bahamas. Choosing not to answer his continuously ringing cell phone, Ben is allowing his family to assume he is dead. He is sparing his family the pain of his betrayal and permitting them to grieve a hero. This infuriates Abby. The 9/12 attacks in a New York City loft are ninety minutes of implosions.
Playwright Neil LaBute dumps you in the middle of the wreckage of Abby and Ben’s lives to sift through the remnants for salvageables. Darrell Cox (Ben) and Cheryl Graeff (Abby) are uncomfortably natural in their portrayal of a bickering couple. Their quarreling is petty at times picking on each other’s choice of words like “duly noted” and “okay.” The nit-picking rages into squirming in your seat, mean spirited intimate with, “for three years, you’ve never looked me in the eyes when we’ve screwed.” Do they love each other enough to leave their lives and run away together? Playwright Neil LaBute fully develops two very human characters, exposes their weaknesses and flaws, places them at a fragile crossroads and forces them to decide their fate. Cox and Graeff are Ben and Abby! Love each other? Sometimes it doesn’t even seem they like each other! The close proximity of the audience to stage is the fly on the wall experience of the not so pretty but completely real moments in a relationship. Feeling like I’m eavesdropping, more than once “I shouldn’t be watching this” crosses my mind. But just like re-watching the plane hit the second tower, I continue to gaze on the spectacle hoping for a positive outcome.
Besides masterfully written dialogue and acting that is so good it doesn’t seem like acting, I loved The Mercy Seat‘s little details to place you back in 9/11 history. Abby arrives at her apartment masked and covered in dust. The dust is so authentic in the theatre that Cox has a coughing fit and my contacts dry out. The television on the set is showing CNN coverage of the two towers collapsing. It’s a strong reminder that for days Americans were glued to televisions watching the footage over and over in disbelief. The unprecedented tragic events on 9/11 sent the world into a bewildered tailspin. To be in the epicenter of the craziness, New Yorkers were in the mercy seat. How many of them took the opportunity to walk away from their so-so lives to start an okay life somewhere else? As Ben says to Abby, “being just okay is good enough.”
The survivor to my left, Shawn says, “the acting is sublime!”
WAITING FOR THE SHOW
Pre-show, I dine with Bill and Steve at Fornello’s (1011 W. Irving Park). Escaping yet another rainy, gloomy Chicago evening, Fornello’s is a cozy oasis that greets you with the homey smells of an open fire and Italian cooking. Nick, doing double duty as bartender and server, enthusiastically recommends a hearty red wine, asparagus salad, pumpkin ravioli and tilapia. We put ourselves at Nick’s mercy and order up all his recommendations to split. The summer salad, rich pasta and sautéed fish are a bit of a mismatch. But much like my dinner companions, individually served it’s a satisfying dish. Together, it becomes a memorable explosion of flavors that will not be denied. Deciding against the dark content of The Mercy Seat, the guys drop me at the theatre door to join Shawn. Originally, I thought this play was called “Mercy Date” now I realize it was just foreshadowing of my evening’s role.
Less than a block away from Profiles Theatre is The Bar on Buena (910 W. Buena). Post show, we head over. From the outside, it looks closed. Opening the door, it’s like a neighborhood block party. Even with the crowd, Shawn and I stalk and secure two comfortable armed chairs. It’s a little noisy but that adds to the festive atmosphere. I loved the ambiance of this place. The service was just okay, but being just okay is good enough. Not really but it’s not so tragic that 10/29 will become an unforgettable day