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REP Stages Neil LaBute’s 9/11 Play, “The Mercy Seat”

"The Mercy Seat" by Neil LaBute is set in the aftermath of 9/11

"The Mercy Seat" by Neil LaBute is set in the aftermath of 9/11

Raleigh Ensemble Players will inaugurate its new “REP Stripped” performance series with a no-frills production of The Mercy Seat, a 2002 two-character play written by Detroit, MI-born playwright provocateur and film director and screenwriter Neil LaBute (Bash: Latterday Plays) and staged for REP by veteran Triangle actor and director Sean A. Brosnahan.

Brosnahan says, “I was introduced to Neil LaBute the writer by C. Glen Matthews, REP’s artistic director, in 2000 when he asked me to read another of his works, Bash: Latterday Plays [1999], and recruited me to co-direct the piece [with him] and Heather Wilcox for production in 2001. I fell in love with [LaBute’s] writing style, and his knack for being able to weave realistic human dialogue into an intense state of personal affairs.

“After [Bash],” Brosnahan says, “I began reading [LaBute’s] work as it became published. The Mercy Seat is a play I’ve long wanted to get my hands on, in any capacity, really. The opportunity to attack this script as a director, when offered once again by Glen Matthews, has been a thrilling opportunity for me.”

He adds, “9/11 has been many things to everyone. To me, the sheer horror at the meaningless loss of life, and my pride in the country’s response, particularly the citizens of New York City, are feelings I will never forget. Ben and Abby (Eric Morales and Benji Taylor Jones), two average people in the middle of the nightmare, its affect on their relationship, and their own personal response to it, all fascinate me.

“I adore the complexity of the relationship Neil LaBute has crafted between these two characters,” says Brosnahan, “and h]ow each has strengths and weaknesses that the other works to exploit, at times for fun, at times to cause hurt to the other, and at times to attempt to prove their love.”

When the curtain rises on The Mercy Seat, director Sean Brosnahan says, “It is early morning on Sept. 12, 2001, in a converted warehouse apartment belonging Abby Prescott (Jones), a successful account executive. At the top of the play, her lover and employee Ben Harcourt (Morales) is hunkered down in her apartment watching news footage of the Sept. 11th tragedy. He is contemplating his life, or rather, his possible death.

“Ben and Abby have a chance to slip away from their current lives and to start over again, together,” explains Brosnahan, “if only Abby will buy into the idea of him faking his death in the tragedy as a means to escape having to personally end his long-term marriage.”

In addition to director Sean Brosnahan, Raleigh Ensemble Players’ creative team for The Mercy Seat includes REP artistic director Glen Matthews, REP managing director Gary Williams, and stage manager Lori Scarborough Ingle.

“The production is part of a new series at REP, our ‘Stripped’ series” Brosnahan points out. “In this process, we take theater to its bones, using only what is necessary to tell the story. We have the audience on two sides, with platforming in the corner of the space to set up the living area of Abby’s apartment.”

He adds, “The set, for the most part, is the inner walls of 213 Fayetteville St. We use the actual brick walls, and the steel staircase of the theater, and incorporate them into the show, allowing them to become structural pieces of Abby’s New York City apartment.”

Brosnahan says, “The lighting is simple stage lighting, no internal cues”; and the show’s costumes are “simple business casual attire” in neutral colors.

“[Benji Taylor Jones and Eric Morales] attack each other verbally with a ferocity that can be overpowering at times,” claims Sean Brosnahan. “The primary challenge in this piece is finding moments of quiet for the audience. Finding soft and tender moments between them, so that it is believable that these two people truly have loved one another, has been a fun exploration for the three of us.”

He adds, “The script is written in a manner that really mimics a true-life conversation, so that maintaining a natural pace and intensity can be challenging for the actors. So many of [Neil LaBute’s] lines of dialogue include ‘yeahs,’ and ‘fines’ and varied expletives interjected in the middle of the other’s sentences, it becomes hard to keep up. These two [characters] constantly start and finish one another’s sentences, and often take them into different directions. Benji [Jones] and Eric [Morales] have done a marvelous job [of] keeping the text in perspective, and in owning the dialogue.

“The one major technical challenge [in staging The Mercy Seat at 213 Fayetteville St.] comes in the form of the two characters’ cell phones,” reveals Sean Brosnahan. “The phones are almost a third character in the play. Both of them ring over and again at various times, [and are] a constant reminder that the outside world is still wondering if they are alive and well. We are attempting to time our calls from cell to cell, live throughout the show. Keeping everything on track can be tough when you’re dealing with a wireless connection and [a performance space] surrounded by concrete and brick.”

Raleigh Ensemble Players presents THE MERCY SEAT at 8 p.m. April 7-9, 7 p.m. April 10, and 8 p.m. April 14-16 at 213 Fayetteville St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.

TICKETS: $10 ($5 REPpass holders), except April 7th pay-what-you-can performance.

BOX OFFICE: 919/832-9607, gorep@juno.com, or http://www.realtheatre.org/box_office.html.

SHOW: http://www.realtheatre.org/box_office.html.

SEASON: http://www.realtheatre.org/plays.html.

PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.realtheatre.org/index.html.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://realtheatre.org/directions.html.

OTHER LINKS:

The Play: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mercy_Seat_(play) (Wikipedia) and http://www.lortel.org/LLA_archive/index.cfm?search_by=show&id=1937 (Internet Off-Broadway Database).

The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

The Playwright: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_LaBute (Wikipedia), http://www.lortel.org/LLA_archive/index.cfm?search_by=people&first=Neil&last=LaBute&middle= (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=391488 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001438/ (Internet Movie Database).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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