Seven or eight years ago, I started reading Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat, his play about a New York couple at a crossroads in their furtive affair on Sept. 12, 2001. It seems that they are co-workers in a building near the World Trade Center site, and the unhappily married man, Ben, never got around to calling his wife to say he was safe. Instead, he decides to hole up in his lover's loft in downtown Manhattan. Given the opportunity to spend an hour in the company of this charming couple, I instead tossed the play across the room after about 10 pages. As the saying goes, it was Too Soon.
Nearly a decade has passed, and LaBute's script is almost a period piece. This is to the benefit of this Raleigh Ensemble Players production; as the shock of September 11 recedes into memory, the pitiful, self-deluding Ben and Abby seem less offensively solipsistic. The play opens with a sound that will haunt the show: the ringing of a mobile telephone. Ben's wife is calling his cell, hoping that her missing husband will pick up.
The debasing of the English language is of profound interest to LaBute—his lovers fumble for words to describe the catastrophe unfolding in Manhattan. They grope for the "big picture," in a "larger context," about "this apocalyptic shit." The tragedy is "beyond belief" and "biblical." And finally, Ben settles for "I feel shitty."
LaBute is often very funny: A gag about Alanis Morissette got belly laughs the night I attended. But there's the matter of the characters, who are as unpleasant as can be. Fortunately, LaBute's corrosive, relentlessly interrogative dialogue keeps us on our toes, and it's crucial, too, that director Sean A. Brosnahan has enlisted such capable performers. As Abby, Benji Taylor Jones is more than credible as a high-flying executive, although she could add nuance to her tightly wound performance. Eric Morales' Ben is often hilariously obtuse, and he brings sexual potency to a character with little else to offer his older, more clever lover.
The show employs a rudimentary unit set with simple lighting, while the exposed structural features of REP's new space, and the building's real windows at the rear, suggest a SoHo loft. This show, too, is the inaugural production of REP's "Stripped" series, which will feature inexpensively mounted shows with minimal production fuss. The Mercy Seat is an auspicious beginning to the series, and if carefully curated, the Stripped shows could become a regular must-see in the Triangle theater scene.