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Chicago by John Olson

The Mercy Seat
Profiles Theatre Co.

Mercy Seat
Darrell W. Cox and
Cheryl Graeff

Profiles has been the Midwestern home of the work of Neil LaBute for several years now, and his pieces are a perfect match to the sensibilities of this edgy storefront company. LaBute's realistic, actor-driven plays fit perfectly in the 50-seat black box on Chicago's Broadway, and Profiles is never shy about exploring the dark side of human nature that so fascinates LaBute. For students of LaBute's work, or completists who may want to see everything he's written, The Mercy Seat—which was performed off-Broadway by Liev Schreiber and Sigourney Weaver for just under a month in late 2002—will be a must. For less obsessive theatergoers, it won't be so satisfying.

The play set on September 12, 2001, and the premise is that a 30-ish married man who worked in the World Trade Center before the attack has escaped death by his having chosen to stop at his mistress's apartment for a quickie on the way to work. Some 15 or 16 hours after the fall of the towers, Ben (Darrell W. Cox) has yet to phone his wife to let her know he's alive. Instead, he's considering somehow letting the world believe he has died so he can begin a new life with his mistress Abby (Cheryl Graeff), who's not only nine years older than Ben, but also his superior at work. Never mind the difficulties inherent in gaining employment when one has no identity that can be verified by records, it's harder still to believe a man would allow his wife and young daughter—whom he claims to love—to believe he is died and to plan never to see them again. It may be that the relationship with the wife is horrendous, but that isn't really established, and LaBute doesn't make much of an effort here to give a credible reason for such an improbable thought.

Instead, the playwright spends his ninety minutes of stage time showing us the volatile relationship between Ben and Abby, without really giving any insight into them as characters. Ben is indecisive and has commitment issues, according to Abby. He is intensely quiet through the play. In contrast, Abby seems manic-depressive, alternating between sweetness and rage with long stretches of seething resentment in between. We're not precisely told the reasons for the conflict, nor given any clue as to why Ben and Abby are together—let alone why Ben might consider giving up not only his family but his identity for her.

Cox and Graeff are fine actors and it's fun watching them here, but more like the fun of watching tennis champions Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal rallying the ball over a lengthy match. You admire their stamina and their timing, and are impressed with their professionalism and skill. Sadly, their performances are in the service of creating characters that are just not very interesting to begin with. Ben and Abby seem too articulate and their words too carefully planned to appear spontaneous. Under the direction of Joe Jahraus, the action never drags and the performances hold one's attention, but at the end of the ninety minutes we're left without much concern over either of them. Fans of LaBute will see his trademark cynicism and ability to craft a scene, but the uninitiated should wait for an opportunity to see one of his better plays, like the excellent Things We Said Today.

The Mercy Seat will be performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. through November 15, 2009 at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway, Chicago. For tickets, buy online at www.profilestheatre.org or call 773-549-1815.


Photo: Wayne Karl

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-- John Olson



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