Some reviews are hard to write.
The Mercy Seat, Neil LaBute's sardonic post 9-11 one-act isn't finding an audience at Theater Memphis' Next Stage. And I seriously doubt that this article will result in many advance reservations for the closing weekend.
Jerry Chipman is a smart director. John Moore (Ben) and Christina Welford Scott (Abby) are gifted actors. But TM's production generates no sexual heat and misses all the comedy and absurdist flourishes at the core of LaBute's limp morality play.
Abby Prescott's swank Manhattan crib on the wrongish side of town is supposed to be covered in layer of dust. Abby is also described in the play as being covered in dust from the storm created when two commercial aircraft smashed into the World Trade Center. She and her married boyfriend Ben Harcourt are fools for love in a disastrous circumstance Sam Shepard might have written about in some futuristic sex farce from 30 years ago.
LaBute wants his audience to experience 9/11 and his dueling narcissists at their most tragic and their most ridiculous. Everything at TM is clean but the language.
Ben's a New York executive and family man. And he should be dead. If he'd been at work on time he'd have died in the big fireball he's been watching over and over again on TV. But he wasn't at work on time because Abby, who is also his boss, was tooting his horn when the terrorist's planes ripped their infamous hole in the sky.
Like perverse subjects in a Roy Lichtenstein painting both characters see a great big "Wham," and it smells like opportunity. Ben is entirely unsympathetic. He says he wants to let his family think he's dead and go on the lam. He says wants to spare his children the horrors of a messy divorce and a protracted custody battle.
Abby is a dozen years older than dickish beau and gets a thrill out of being a younger stud's hot piece of doggy-style tail. She also finds rear entry depersonalizing and absurd and for some reason the awfulness of 9-11 makes her want to monologue about that. She wants to be the boss and the other woman and the wife -- and she wants to monologue about all of that too. It's at least an opportunity for Scott to get her Blanche Dubois on and that's never a bad thing. But that's about the most positive thing that can be said about this tedious time waster.
The Mercy Seat doesn't work without a sense that if Abby ever stops talking and Ben ever looks at her the lights will come down and the drama will switch to porn in an eye-blink. LaBute gives the audience no other reason to believe that his couple could ever really be a couple, and TM's production is coolly pristine and sexless.
The only one thing that could ever compel anybody to spend an hour and a half with these people: no intermission.
Oh well. With George Dudley and Kim Justice Eikner topping the cast list, Sweeney Todd sounds promising. Maybe it can get Theatre Memphis back on track.
--by Chris Davis