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Play examines selfishness after 9-11

by Amy Kingsley

Legend has it that playwright Neil LaBute dreamed up the story as he waited to board a plane during the first confusing minutes after 9-11, a flight that would never end up taking off. As the story goes, the first shameful thought that crossed LaBute’s mind was “Damn, isn’t that inconvenient.”

He stifled the impulse, naturally, in light of the greater tragedy. But its immediacy and utter inappropriateness during a time of national crisis nagged at him. Just a couple months after 9-11, LaBute debuted Mercy Seat, one of the first major dramatic works to approach the terrorist attacks.

But you don’t go to a LaBute play expecting heroism. The playwright and filmmaker made his living depicting the seedier, more manipulative side of human existence. The New Yorkers this play depicts are not the ones who performed acts of valor as the towers collapsed, but instead are a couple poised to capitalize on an almost unfathomable catastrophe.

The Renaissance Theater Company bit off quite a mouthful when its principals selected Mercy Seat as the sixth performance of their fledgling troupe. What the play forgives in terms of sets, costumes and pyrotechnics it more than makes up for in its dramatic demands.

Ben and Abby, played by Eric Schultz and Heidi McIver respectively, are lovers and coworkers, struggling through relationship issues in the shadow of their coworkers’ demise. The play takes place less than 24 hours after planes strike the World Trade Center, where Ben should have been but for the twist of fate that landed him in his lover Abby’s apartment.

Ben faces a dilemma. Should he allow his family to believe he is dead so he can start a new life with Abby? Or does he take his wife’s calls and return to the connubial bosom?

Curious theatergoers piled into a converted yoga studio on the northwest edge of town last weekend to see this story in translation – more than five years after 9-11, transported some 600 miles south.

It was in a moderately sized rectangle of a room with lavender walls, the studio usually reserved for hot yoga classes, and was appropriately stuffy even with the overhead fans running.

Audience members sat in metal folding chairs; about 20 of them had been set out for the occasion. It was in such cramped confines that the play, claustrophobic in script, unfolded.

The word “unfolded,” of course, suggests something smooth. And smooth is not LaBute’s métier.

It might be more accurate to say that the action alternately knotted and unknotted in that little room, sort of like the muscles of a practiced yogi.

Ben and Abby bicker throughout this 90-minute, intermission-less production. The set was simple, just a loveseat draped with a dropcloth and a dorm fridge, also shrouded. The action occurs on Sept. 12, 2001, less than 24 hours after the towers fell, an event only obliquely referred to by the characters.

Between Abby and Ben, the audience is not offered much to sympathize with. When the play premiered, it likely stirred strong emotions with its unforgiving portrayal of greed in the face of catastrophe. But Ben in hindsight sounds pretty sharp. When he predicts that the country and city will recover from the event only to return to their old, mercenary ways he sounds cynical. Five and a half years after the fact, it looks as though that is exactly what we’ve done.

The Renaissance Theater Company collected donations in a tin can after the show. The funds were to be used for achieving non-profit status. As the audience trickled out into the night, the actors and director Paul Masters relaxed near the lobby. There they cracked the first smiles to crease their faces in almost two hours.

“Part of the reason we created this company was to affect people’s social consciousness,” McIver said. “We thought it was kind of appropriate in this day and age to remind people about the things that bring us together and tear us apart.”

McIver said the company might reprise Mercy Seat sometime in the near future..

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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