Sirens bawl outside and an eerily familiar white dust coats windows and clothing. But despite these not-so-incidental touches, The Mercy Seat—set on September 12, 2001—is more a conventional relationship play than topical drama. Playwright and director Neil LaBute sees disaster and terrorism in love and builds on this metaphor to show the emotional abyss of a couple facing romantic ground zero.
Ben Harcourt (Liev Schreiber) sits traumatized on the plush sofa in his lover’s downtown loft and stares at his ringing cell phone. It’s been less than 24 hours since the disaster, and Ben—still wearing yesterday’s suit and tie—now has a chance “to totally erase the past.” If he doesn’t pick up the phone he can “disappear” from his marriage forever in the confusion, leaving his wife and daughters in the suburbs to valorize him as a hero lost in the towers’ collapse. His lover, Abby Prescott (Sigourney Weaver), a more successful corporate climber, agrees that “we got lucky,” but has professional and personal doubts about running away with him—pointedly not ethical ones.
Most of this two-person play takes the form of a colossal where-is-this-affair-going argument, in which LaBute gradually plants more and more detail about the pair’s history. The playwright spreads a number of mild surprises throughout the extended single scene, changing the perspective on their competitive psychological struggle by revealing that, for instance, one character is the other’s boss and, later, divulging that these positions get reversed during sex.
Schreiber and Weaver—two of New York’s finest—convert partially drawn characters and Mamet-type repetitive/laconic dialogue into some rich emotional payoffs. Schreiber carries Ben’s paralysis and self-loathing in his gut; he creates a character with unexpected depths—as cowardly as he is cruel—who is also chillingly void of values. Schreiber contributes most of the intensity, while Weaver gracefully manages with the less defined role; though more honest and straightforward, Abby makes murkier choices. With all the poise that Weaver gives her, she seems too strong to cling to solipsistic Ben. The emotional weakness fueling her torment remains unseen.
Using the disaster as a backdrop, LaBute casts the couple’s narcissism and moral abdication into relief. Despite army operations just outside the loft’s two enormous windows, the couple have only halfhearted platitudes in response; they conceive of the horrific event mostly in terms of what it offers their own lives. LaBute never entirely decides whether he’s writing a dark battle-of-the-sexes in which September 11 merely provides additional shadings, or whether he’s exposing the uglier aspects of the aftermath. As a result, the play lacks the sharper calculations he provides in his other plays and films—the last third of The Mercy Seat goes in circles searching for resolution.
At core LaBute is a moralist, but a surprisingly banal one: He identifies the pattern of vengeances contained in this relationship (male-female, boss-employee), asks whether they can or should continue, and calls attention to the deplorably selfish attitudes behind them. But despite the title’s claims to biblical scale and significance—it refers to the lid on the Arc of the Covenant, where God becomes manifest—the domestic psychology here offers far smaller insights. The observation that some people use others’ misfortunes for personal gain is neither startling nor original to anyone who reads the newspaper’s front pages, and it’s old news in modern drama that our values are corrupt and adrift.
If LaBute’s characters struggle with emotional honesty, Hank Williams exuded it. As life stories go, Williams’s is unusual but not full of surprises: A talented kid from rural Alabama, he drops out of school, plays in local honky-tonks, forms the Drifting Cowboys, and triumphs at his Grand Ole Opry debut. Though he wins hearts along with national success, Williams stays lonely and drinks enough whiskey to die in the backseat of his car at 29. Hank Williams: Lost Highway, a “musical biography” of the hillbilly maestro, fares far better with music than with biography—perhaps because the plainspoken singer wasn’t an overtly dramatic personality to begin with. Most information in the play gets relayed by announcement; company members often turn to address the audience directly (in character), with bland narration introducing each short scene from Williams’s life, usually segueing into song afterward.
As portrayed by Jason Petty, Williams remains largely inscrutable, even when falling in love with the high-maintenance Audrey or drinking himself sick. Both Petty and the legend leap to life, however, whenever the show’s clunky book falls to the side and the group begins to play. With gifted bandmates Stephen G. Anthony, Drew Perkins, Myk Watford, and Russ Wever behind him, Petty stomps, strums, and yodels with enough spirit to eclipse the embarrassing dialogue. In exuberant renditions of ditties like “Hey Good Lookin’ ” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” the songwriter’s joyful irreverence and plaintive sincerity shine through, and it finally becomes clear why Williams’s baleful honesty commands the spotlight.