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DISTRESSING BUT VERY GOOD: Neil LaBute’s ‘The Mercy Seat’ rides the wave of human emotion

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LaBute digs deep into the darker aspects of the human psyche.

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Thalian Association opens their season with an intimate show at Red Barn Theatre: Neil LaBute’s “The Mercy Seat.” Like much of his work, LaBute’s 2002 script is tough to encounter. One cannot argue it is not skillfully written; LaBute clearly has an ear for language and a sense of story arc. Also, he is so attracted to the everyday sort of evil that lives in the human heart—the kind that blossoms when we allow our basic sense of decency to evaporate—and dramatizes it with such precision that disappointment in our own failed humanity is the highest praise for a LaBute script.


BACK TO REAITY? Susen Auten and Rodman Boleck lead a fascinating two-person show in LaBute’s ‘The Mercy Seat.’ Courtesy photo

Case in point is the exposition for “The Mercy Seat”: It is the day after September 11, 2001. Ben Harcourt (Rodman Bolek) was supposed to be at work at the World Trade Center the day before. Instead, he was with his mistress, Abby Prescott (Susan Auten), at her apartment. His family believes he is dead, and he is hiding in her apartment while he tries to persuade her to let him remain dead, so the two of them can walk away from everything. Abby is justifiably shocked he sees the national tragedy as his meal ticket out of his marriage, with no strings attached.

This is not a play to see for a laugh—though there are some startlingly funny moments. However, it is intriguing to see what LaBute chooses for his characters. But the real reason to see the show is, obviously, the performances. It is the kind of script that appeals to actors because it lets them mine some true artistry to portray parts of the human experience we would rather deny. For this script to work, it has to be realistic; it cannot be 90 minutes of screaming at each other. It has to ride the wave of human emotion with crescendos, retreats, shifts, veering tangents, and most importantly the pause. That’s terrifying. Silence onstage is frightening. But, wow, Auten and Bolek have perfected asking each other a question only the audience can answer. The actors let the moment of painful revelation hang in the air where it festers and demands to be spoken.   

Frankly, by 10 minutes into the show, I was ready to ask Bolek’s Ben to leave. Yes, it was time for him to go. But Auten manages to bring us an Abby who, though she knows it’s time for him to go, wants very much not to be alone in the wake of this horrific attack. It is truly a very personal tragedy for Abby to have unfolding in front of her—the fractal to the devastation facing those around her. Has she really wasted her life with this shallow, callous, self-absorbed imbecile? Admitting the truth of what she has known and wrestled with is the real path of this script: getting Abby to be honest with herself and act upon it. It would be an incredibly challenging role for any actress, yet Auten manages to unfold, retract, step forward, and dance about with incredible skill. Her struggle is infuriating, painful and angry. Each time she lashes out at him is just another puncture wound in his absurd, weak and dishonest armor.

To Ben’s credit, he does admit pretty early that he is a weak and conniving person. That Bolek plays it so convincingly is distressing. That he can meet Auten at every step and raise the bar yet still make it all about him is pretty startling. He really has the spoiled, rich white-boy package: entitled, selfish, self-confidant, bitter, disdainful, and deceitful. What’s worse: He can’t even appreciate anything he has. Even more awful: He doesn’t have the courage or conviction to live a truly full life with the incredible gifts he’s been given.

Watching he and Auten bat that tennis ball of chatter back and forth, as to avoid talking about what is really going on, is maddening and so realistic.

LaBute’s command of dialogue, reproducing how men and women argue differently, is well done, but two performers who ratchet it up and don’t go for the easy choices, to sell an unfolding realization, adds layer upon layer of painful recognition. As they physically react to the realization that one of them must now play dead (not answer the door, not answer the phone, not go out to buy milk) and its magnitude, on top of everything else they have chosen, becomes palpable. It is striking how easily Bolek’s Ben slides into it and just how angry and defiant of it Auten’s Abby is. If anything, that LaBute has given her the greater amount of human decency of the two (if only because she has some regret, and some strength of character) is surprising.

Production designer Lance Howell has created a professional drab apartment perfect for a corporate ladder-climbing business woman. Opening night had some minor technical glitches, but once Auten and Bolek hit their stride, their work overshadowed anything else.

When I got home Jock asked, “So how was the show?”        

Instead of kissing him, I headed to the kitchen and called over my shoulder, “I want to wash my hands before I touch you.”

It’s the best compliment I could give the cast.

The Mercy Seat
Aug. 18-25, Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.;
Sun., 3 p.m.
Red Barn Studio Theatre
1122 S. 3rd St.
Tickets: $25

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