It's a cliché to say tragedy brings out both the best and the worst in people. We know this instinctively. When the attacks of 9/11 happened, we heard a lot about people at their best. Firemen, policemen and ordinary citizens selflessly risking their lives to save others. A nation and a world coming together—if only for the space of a few short breaths—collectively vowing to defend civilization against its barbaric enemies.
Of course, there must have been cowards, too—weaker souls who in the hours that followed succumbed to the darker potentials of human nature. We didn't hear much about them. At the time, no one wanted to hear about weakness. In the face of all that senseless death and destruction, we needed heroes, and we got them, around the clock, on every channel, in every newspaper. In the confusion, we even turned to our president, for a while projecting heroism onto a man who so clearly lacks it.
Right now, over at the Orpheum Art Space, the Tricklock Company is staging Neil LaBute's The Mercy Seat. The play shifts the focus from the heroes of 9/11 to the cowards—or a coward, I should say. I'm sure there were countless reprehensible ways to respond to the tragedy of that day. Ben Harcourt chose just one, but it's a pretty revolting one.
The play opens one day after the attack. Ben (Chad Brummett) is crashed out on his girlfriend's couch with a tortured expression twisting his face. His cell phone rests on his chest, ringing. For whatever reason, he refuses to answer it.
A moment later, Ben's girlfriend, Abby Prescott (Dodie Montgomery), comes home from the grocery story. She's stressed out, distracted, on edge, but who wouldn't be? It's Sept. 12, 2001. The entire world is on edge, and nowhere is this more true than in New York. This couple doesn't need to turn on the TV to follow what happened; they enjoy a pristine view from Abby's window of the void where the two towers used to be.
Yet for Ben at least, the terrorist attack offers a possible blessing in disguise. A chance to start over. A perverted opportunity to personally profit from the tragedy. Slowly, with a tight sense of pacing, LaBute reveals the full nature of the conflict at the center of this couple's troubled relationship. Even before they open their mouths, you get a sense of their lifestyle from the Perrier bottles littered across the apartment. The world is falling apart, but these waspy people are struggling with the waspiest of dilemmas.
Brummett, who can always be relied on for an intense and polished performance, does an immaculate job here filling the slippers of the morally confused Ben. Montgomery also does spectacular work as his disappointed lady. The pair generates some poisonous chemistry together, perfectly reproducing the syncopated rhythms of domestic verbal abuse even when LaBute's dialog on a few occasions degenerates from painful realism to stilted, self-consciously literary repartee.
Director Denise Schulz stages this drama as theater-
Five years after the attack, we now find ourselves living in a peculiar transitional period. For years, our culture imposed an unspoken law that placed a creative shroud over the event. It's only quite recently that we have, however tentatively, begun to explore the trauma through fictional narratives. This is a good thing. It's a sign of healing, one that's essential if we're ever to fully come to terms with the catastrophe.
One of the most haunting aspects of The Mercy Seat is the way it realistically recreates the psychological dynamics at work in the days following 9/11. This is all the more astonishing when you consider that LaBute first staged The Mercy Seat in November 2002 at the Manhattan Class Company (MCC) Theatre in New York. It's not hard to guess what the reaction was back then, in that charged environment. It must've been emotionally jarring to see this morality tale played out while the emotional wounds were still so fresh.
Even five years on, though, the play still possesses a jolting immediacy. LaBute has found an exceptionally insightful way to use 9/11 as a backdrop for an exploration of individual cowardice. In doing so, he encourages viewers to transform the tragedy from a cartoonish Biblical battle between good and evil into an opportunity, which we all should embrace, to consider the qualities that give us value as human beings, the ones that separate true heroes from the rest of us.
The Mercy Seat is the right play at the right time, a fitting way to celebrate this unhappy anniversary, when so many of the heroic possibilities of 9/11 have been shamelessly squandered by our political leaders. Go see it. And if you find yourself craving more LaBute after the show, consider stopping by the Vortex Theatre, where another of his pieces, BASH: Latterday Plays, opens this weekend (see “Lucky Seven” for details).