There was a brief moment after Sept. 11, 2001, in which much hope was expressed that the tragedy would make us a less frivolous, less selfish people. Neil LaBute knew better, and his play "The Mercy Seat," with its subtext that life would go on without any change, came as a slap in the face when it arrived in New York a year after the attack.
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston's New England premiere shows that "The Mercy Seat" still has the same jolt. All one has to do is tune to "The Apprentice" or "Survivor" to realize that LaBute was prescient about the superficiality of American concerns.
The play begins around dawn on Sept. 12 in the apartment of Abby, a corporate manager having an affair with Ben, a married man who works with her. In fact, Ben had stopped off at her place on his way to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, and the attack happened while they were having sex. Ben now sees a way out of his unhappy married-with-children lifestyle: pretend to have died, and run away with Abby.
This forms the backdrop for the merciless verbal battle of the sexes that follows. Battle? It's more like World War III, as Abby bombards Ben with examples of his selfishness and stupidity. He fights back, throwing her pretentiousness and triviality in her face.
Fun, huh? Kind of like the last Hollywood movie you saw? LaBute is also a filmmaker, though anyone who has seen "In the Company of Men" or "Your Friends and Neighbors" knows that his movies aren't exactly of the Hollywood variety.
But LaBute's tough-love view of just how tough love is plays better onstage than on-screen. What seems to be mere misanthropy in his films has a more pointed purpose and a more human face in the theater. We're forced to confront the reality of the characters' actions -- no matter how unsavory -- rather than dismiss their choices as cynical inventions of the author.
With NBC's coverage of the disaster in the background, the two go at each other like George and Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" She tells him how she makes lists of what she needs to do at work while they're making love. Ben is more on the defensive throughout, reminding her of the family he left behind to suffer her abuses. The Lyric's production is not completely successful at capturing the intensity of the play. Eric Engel's decision to stage it in the round is distracting. Compared to the original, Robert Pemberton is a softer Ben than Liev Schreiber, and Paula Plum a harder Abby than Sigourney Weaver.
There's no one way to play these characters, of course, and Pemberton makes a strong case for playing Ben as a frightened, unformed 30-something. Even his shallowness has a kind of charm.
Plum's relentless scold is less convincing. It's hard to see these two characters lasting three months, never mind the three years they've been together. There has to be some indication of their professed love for each other amid so much cruelty. But Pemberton and Plum are two of the best actors in Boston, so perhaps before too long Plum and Engel can find some hint of the warmth Abby has felt for Ben, though LaBute's script doesn't offer many openings.
In his introduction to the published edition of "The Mercy Seat," LaBute says, "Honesty is the hardest, coldest currency on the planet." The mirror that LaBute holds up to us does not reflect a very flattering picture. But as the frivolousness of our society has only spread in the new millennium, that hard, cold slap in the face feels like a needful thing from our artists.
Ed Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.
THE MERCY SEAT
Play in one act by Neil LaBute
Directed by Eric C. Engel. Set, Brynna Bloomfield. Costumes, Gail Astrid Buckley. cq Lights, Eleanor Moore.
At the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through April 17. 617-437-7172.