In The Mercy Seat, playwright Neil LaBute addresses the 9/11 bombings, a discomforting backdrop even by his wonderfully nasty standards.
Ben (Leigh J. Guyer) is a Manhattan business-type, a husband and a father who works in the World Trade Center and is having an affair with his boss, Abby (Karen Trumbo). The dawn of 9/12/01 finds the adulterous couple hiding out in Abby's apartment, quietly shocked and amazingly lucky, saved the day before by a spontaneous break from work for a quickie blow-job. Ben's cell phone rings incessantly, but he doesn't answer it. It's his desperate family, surely praying that he's still alive. But Ben has had a despicable and intoxicating realization: if they believe he's dead they'll never suspect he's escaped. In the wake of terrible tragedy, he and Abby have the perfect chance to run away to a new life, no strings attached.
LaBute's fascinating premise makes it easy to write Ben off as a coldhearted loony, and Guyer runs with it, delivering his harebrained rationalizations in an unchanging tough-guy voice. But there's a reason Ben is rationalizing; be it Abby or his family, he loves somebody besides himself enough that he has to hesitate before executing his ridiculous plan. Guyer ignores that reason, whatever it may be, and his performance is less interesting as a result. Meanwhile, Abby's tolerance of Ben's cruel refusal to contact his family hints at a deep well of self-destruction that Trumbo similarly disregards. She is dismayed by Ben's choices, but unrelentingly proud and elegant. Abby is at least a decade older than Ben--an intriguing detail--but director Gray Eubank's confused production has Trumbo outfitted in tight-fitting hipster clothes that make her look a decade younger than Guyer. Why would an older, successful woman tolerate the awful antics of a younger inferior? It's an intriguing question that get dismissed in one fell costuming swoop.
LaBute's creepy situations are capable of carrying themselves, but his plays are ultimately character-driven; explorations of flawed people dealing with fucked up situations. ART's Mercy Seat finds the flaws and the situation, but can't locate the people.