The Mercy Seat with John Hannah and Sinead Cusack is playing at the Almeida Theatre until December 6 2003. Tickets are almost entirely sold out but due to popular demand a new matinee show (3:30pm) Wed 3 December 2003 has been added for which tickets are available at the time of writing (29 November 2003).
This review contains mild spoilers.
Set on the 12th September 2001 in New York, the Mercy Seat is about a couple having an affair. Ben (Hannah) was supposed to be in the World Trade Center on the morning of the 11th but instead visited Abby (Cusack), his mistress (and also his boss). Ben decides this is the ideal opportunity to leave his wife and kids – by pretending he has died along with the others – and run off with Abby. The play then centres around his plan and the fact that Abby wants him instead to ring his wife and tell her he is alive and then leave her.
It is impossible to believe that Ben really would rather his two daughters thought him dead and he was never able to see them again as well as have to construct an illegal false identity. The play goes some way towards making us believe he really thinks this (at least for today) but the premise is sadly slightly absurd. More believable is Abby’s wish that Ben would leave his wife in more conventional fashion. Plausability aside this tension in desires gives the play most of its interesting moments. Something is being said about female desire for honesty whatever the consequences and the male desire to avoid those same consequences even if that means being duplicitous.
The Mercy Seat is not a brilliant play nor a brilliant production. Hannah feels slightly miscast (perhaps someone whose casting is a bit younger, more misanthropic?) Cusack’s performance is strong though. Real truths emerge from the play in bursts. The writer Neil LaBute is right when he says the play is about, “why [we are] willing to run a hundred miles around simply saying to someone, ‘I don’t love you anymore’? Why? Because Nikes are cheap, running is easy, and honesty is the hardest, coldest currency on the planet.” But bursts is all there is. The twist at the end is strong but not enough to elevate the play to the level of a must-see.