Arts Hub review: The Mercy Seat

The opening of Doolittle Productions’ The Mercy Seat was an aural attack. An incessantly ringing cell phone and news broadcasts of the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attack were played so loudly they verged on assaulting the ears. It was certainly just an opening night hiccup – the sound levels not well checked – and the volume was reduced later in the production. But it was also an ironic foreshadowing of the aural attack that was about to follow.

If you relish listening in to other people’s arguments, this play is for you. A married office worker hides out in the New York apartment of his boss/secret lover, so they can run away together while he is presumed dead. He sees an opportunity in one of the most horrendous moments in his country’s history: the September 11 terrorist attack. She sees it as morally reprehensible.

Ninety unrelenting minutes of a couple ripping apart their past, their future, and each other, certainly holds a dramatic power, especially for those who love conflict. But it can also lead to annihilation – of the dramatic potential as well as the characters. And it left at least some of its audience alienated and underwhelmed.

A playwright’s most important arsenal is subtext. Arguments are largely the opposite. It is the outpouring of things left unsaid, of tension that has built to a point where the mushroom cloud erupts. In The Mercy Seat we bear witness to that mushroom cloud. But without first being party to the fickle state of friction that sparked it, we have been robbed of the reason to care for those who are scorched in the aftermath. And without expressions of intimacy until late in the play, Abby’s verbal haranguing was treading dangerously into nagging territory.

But Neil LaBute’s script didn’t have to be turned into an argument. Whilst Claire Maloney’s set, covered with ash, added a symbolic evocation of the rubble that really remained of the couple’s lives, Andrew Doyle’s direction at times lacked the subtlety that was needed to add more dimension to the theme. Exploring a more nuanced approach and further juxtaposing the tenderness embattled by tension could have been a far more powerful treatment of the text, and perhaps fostered more chemistry between this pair of illicit lovers that was sorely lacking but absolutely essential to make the scenario believable.

The Mercy Seat had a compelling moral dilemma to explore. The actors (Jo Little and Chris Rodgers) struck some powerful moments of core emotional truth that pulled the audience back into believing their world, particularly Chris Rodgers, who delivered spot-on comic timing when it was needed most. But they were undermined by a script that failed to be consistent – or believable – in crucial explorations of morals and motive, and direction that needed to be taken further to rise above the lovers’ quarrel and issues of an illicit workplace affair. Its potential helped sustain the tension, but in the end the promise was short-lived. The Mercy Seat was heavy on acerbic wit and American references but light on exploration of its theme.

Doolittle Productions present
The Mercy Seat
By Neil LaBute
Director: Andrew Doyle
Designer: Claire Moloney
Lighting: Jodi Speight

Cast: Jo Little and Chris Rodgers

Sidetrack Theatre, Marrickville
August 20 - September 3