Laura Esterman and Jenn Harris
in Mercy on the Doorstep

(Photo © Max Ruby)
Laura Esterman and Jenn Harris
in Mercy on the Doorstep
(Photo © Max Ruby)
"Stop drinking and accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior." These are the two conditions set for Corinne by her stepdaughter, Rena, and Rena's preacher husband, Mark, in order for Corinne to continue living in her own home. (Rena's father had willed the house to his daughter on his deathbed.) Gip Hoppe's Mercy on the Doorstep throws these three characters together, and they attempt to influence one another's behaviors -- sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The play is often predictable and melodramatic, but it does have moments of poignancy.

At times, it seems like a variation on Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, substituting alcoholism and religion for slovenliness and cleanliness. Porno movies, homemade cookies, liquor bottles, and Bible study sessions are used here as fuel for comedy as well as drama. The confrontations between Corinne (Laura Esterman) and Mark (Mark Rosenthal) send up the viewpoints of both characters, particularly those of the latter. Yet Hoppe's treatment of religion is more even-handed than it initially appears. Rena and Mark's brand of tough-love does appear to help Corinne deal with her alcohol addiction, and though the play depicts Mark's "Christian" behavior as based largely in hypocrisy and repression, we still get a sense that his faith is real. Rena (Jenn Harris) movngly recounts a rather horrifying cycle of alcohol and drug abuse that nearly killed her until she was reborn in Christ and found the will to change her life for the better.

This three-hander depends heavily on the actors' abilities to make their characters believable. In that respect, the production only partially succeeds. Esterman is pitch-perfect, displaying a hard-bitten cynicism that passes for strength and a deep-seated fear and vulnerability that occasionally bubble to the surface. Harris, best known for wacky, comic roles, gets to display her dramatic chops as Rena; there are a few moments towards the beginning of the play when she pushes too hard but, for the most part, she is able to reconcile the many contradictory aspects of Rena's personality in a dramatically satisfying manner. Unfortunately, Rosenthal is at sea; he overplays Mark's intentions and often seems to be commenting upon the character rather than inhabiting it. The actor is at his best when non-verbally communicating Mark's inner turmoil, but when he voices these doubts in a prayer to God, they sound insincere.

Susan Zeeman Rogers has designed a terrific, naturalistic set that utilizes the Flea Theatre's upstairs space to good effect. Kevin Hardy's lighting helps to show the passage of time and contributes to the overall mood of each scene. Director Jim Simpson has unfortunately chosen to include an intermission in this one hour and 45 minute production; even if called for by the playwright, it's not necessary. Some judicious trimming of repetitious dialogue could further shave the running time and make the play tighter.