Sigourney Weaver and Liev Schreiberin The Mercy Seat(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Sigourney Weaver and Liev Schreiber
in The Mercy Seat
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
For Neil LaBute, the longest and most ferocious battle in military history is the one between the sexes. As he sees it in the plays and movies he writes and directs with the care of a diabolical watchmaker, men and women are programmed to get at each other. The leap forward that LaBute makes in The Mercy Seat is that the play's skirmishers, Ben Harcourt (Liev Schreiber) and Abby Prescott (Sigourney Weaver), get at each other as a means of eventually getting to each other. For that reason, while this 100-minute, intermissionless piece may not be the author's most soul-searing, it's the one in which the characters seem the most human.

This doesn't mean that Ben and Abby are luvvies. LaBute himself may be a sweetheart, as many who have worked with him attest, but he doesn't attribute much sweetness or heart to his characters. According to him, it's not the pumping chest muscle that dictates our behavior but the bile-producing liver. Often, as in the films In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things, at least one LaBute figure is devoted to devastating at least one other. The spin which the cynical playwright gives The Mercy Seat is that Ben is considering an immoral step to prolong the relationship under examination, a measure that Abby resists approving. The pair aren't out to sabotage one another -- not overtly, anyway -- and that's saying something.

The impetus for The Mercy Seat is the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. The vanished towers were located not much more than a stone's throw from the converted loft in which Abby lives and Ben has taken up semi-permanent residence. As a result of 9/11, the wayward husband and father Ben sees an opportunity for him and Abby to cement the clandestine affair they've been conducting for some time. And although those connected with this production have been explicit in the press about Ben's plan, the initial vague exchanges of the script indicate that LaBute wants the audience to cotton only slowly to what's afoot. For that reason, anyone who hopes to experience the play as LaBute intends is advised to skip the next few paragraphs.

Mercy me: Sigourney Weaver(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Mercy me: Sigourney Weaver
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
It turns out that Ben, who's failing to answer his ringing cell phone as the lights go up, is thinking of taking selfish advantage of the towers' collapse. He was meant to be in one of the doomed offices but had stopped at Abby's for a sexual encounter. He figures that if he doesn't talk to his wife, who presumably is the person calling him repeatedly, he and Abby -- his elder as well as his boss -- can run off and build a life together. Abby much prefers that their moving forward be open and above board, and this disagreement is the basis for the bickering that makes up much of the text.

Ben and Abby bicker, reconcile, and bicker again in beautifully tuned dialogue. They come complete with the qualified beliefs in themselves and each other that couples routinely have, wavering between passion and mistrust -- a situation complicated by Abby's concern that the dozen years she has on Ben will undermine any happiness they might find.

An example of two people who have fallen in love but may not like each other very much, Ben and Abby are not unlike the embattled characters in works as disparate as Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage, Noël Coward's Private Lives, and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. As they prowl Abby's kitchen-cum-living-room in Catherine Zuber's costumes (Donna Karan also gets credit here) and under James Vermeulen's lights, as sirens cry in the street (David Van Tieghem is the sound man), their inability to accommodate each other for more than a few moments at a time makes for harrowing fare. And when it comes to "harrowing," LaBute is a master. Just as it appears that Ben will call his wife according to Abby's wishes, he dials -- but whom he actualy calls is a whopping surprise.

While The Mercy Seat exists as LaBute's response to an international calamity, LaBute uses 9/11 as a catalyst for the latest in a series of man-versus-woman works. The terrorist invasion, he seems to be saying, throws everyday, interpersonal terrorism into relief. Since that is his primary message, LaBute scants some of the realities of the days following the towers' collapse, and this may bother some audience members.

Ground zero:Sigourney Weaver and Liev Schreiber
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Ground zero:
Sigourney Weaver and Liev Schreiber
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
It's indicated that the apartment setting of the play is very close to ground zero, but the absence of any evidence to that effect is striking. Neil Patel's commodious set design features two ominous, black pillars, but there are no ashes to be seen. In the script, however, a stage direction says: "A television plays quietly in one corner. A layer of white dust on everything. Absolutely everything." It looks as if director LaBute decided not to follow playwright LaBute's stipulations to the letter and thereby removed realistic and symbolic elements that could have enhanced the production.

On the other hand, LaBute's work with his actors is flawless. Liev Schreiber gives another of his skillful performances; he's thinking every moment, constantly bending and unbending his fingers to indicate emotional discomfort. Sigourney Weaver uses her pinched features and lanky frame to great advantage. Ironically, her unlined brow seems always to be furrowed as a result of the worried thoughts in which her character is immersed. LaBute only allows the pair to touch each other once or twice, but when they do, the clotted air hums.

LaBute derived the title of this play from a hymn containing the line "Approach, my soul, the mercy-seat, where Jesus answers prayers." Whereas the quality of Jesus's mercy is not strained, LaBute's is. He's more interested in the hot seat -- and that's why The Mercy Seat is so white-hot.