The most important decisions are often made in the most unconventional of places. President Trump thinks it more appropriate to consolidate diplomatic ties in his Mar-a-Logo resort in Florida than in The White House. Theresa May’s call for a snap general election last month wasn’t formulated at 10 Downing Street surrounded by confidantes, but on a walking holiday in Wales.
Of course, some circumstances are simply too crass to play home to irregular decision-making. For example, it would be pretty odd if, just hours after the World Trade Centre was destroyed, a sex-crazed couple in Manhattan started to discuss the merits of eloping. Still, that’s exactly where Nick LaBute’s The Mercy Seat kicks off.
The story centres on Ben Harcourt (Jonathan Blakely), a married businessman who should have attended a meeting at the World Trade Centre on the morning of September 11th, 2001. But rather than go to work, he decided to have sex with his boss at her house in Manhattan. Similar to a number of LaBute’s male protagonists, Ben’s skewed moral compass gradually unfolds. Ignoring his wife’s panicked phone calls in the hours following the terrorist attack, Ben decides to play dead, viewing the terrorist attack as a chance to start a new life with his mistress, Abby (Isabella Verrico).
Despite urging him to elope for years, Abby becomes unnerved with Ben’s pitiless demeanour. Although she is keen to run away with Ben, she questions whether staging their deaths is really appropriate. But Abby is hardly a moral saint. Throughout the 70-minute production, she barrages Ben with a continual stream of sarcastic remarks, which could easy become monotonous if it were not for Verrico’s animated sensitivity to every pause and syllable she produces.
But while Abby provides a pragmatic counterpoint to Ben’s dithering naivety, LaBute’s psychological appreciation of the human condition ensures that his protagonists never appear as caricatures. Bereft of ethical intuition, Ben’s morose and disbelieving attitude prickles the audience’s moral compass as much as his own. At one point, Ben remarks: “This is a national disaster, yes … until the next time the Yankees win the pennant, then we’ll all move on from there.” Blakeley furnishes an extra dimension to Ben’s psyche, and transforms what could be a pithy proclamation into a commentary on the futility of mourning.
Ultimately, it is these incisive remarks that hold the play together. Unsure about what he should do, Abby reminds Ben: “You have to choose”. And it is this emphasis on choice that informs Miller’s direction. Unlike previous productions of The Mercy Seat, the stage remains baron. With its uncluttered format, Blakeley and Verrico are given free reign to impose an atmosphere of their own making. Despite the play’s association with 9/11, every sentence and movement sprouts from Ben and Abby’s own vision of how they want their lives to proceed. In this production of The Mercy Seat, the audience isn’t transported to downtown Manhattan, but neither does it remain in a trendy fringe theatre in North London. Rather, this sensitive portrayal of LaBute’s work encourages the spectator to wrestle with mankind’s struggle with the very act of decision-making. Trump prefers Florida and May enjoys Snowdonia. But The Mercy Seat reveals that location doesn’t matter. Life-changing decisions are made anywhere and everywhere.
Abby – Isabella Verrico
Ben – Jonathan Blakely
Directed by Alex Miller, Greenwood Theatre Company.
The Hen & Chickens Theatre: 2nd-6th May.