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Arts and Entertainment

Vs. Theatre Company Rides the Lightning With "The Mercy Seat"

Michelle Clunie and Johnny Clark in "The Mercy Seat" - Photo by Kimberly-Rose Wolter.
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The Mercy Seat is often referred to as Neil LaBute's "9/11 play," and while this is technically true, the events of 9/11 are not really what this play is about. It's actually a serious drama about a relationship in crisis, a struggle for dominance in the guise of a love story. The fact that this 2002 work is only now receiving its L.A. premiere is surprising, but it could hardly have had a better production than the one it gets from the Vs. Theatre Company, which positively growls with the caustic brilliance of its performances.

It's 9/12, and Ben (Johnny Clark) is sitting stunned in his girlfriend's high-end New York apartment listening to the news. When Abby (Michelle Clunie) returns home with groceries, building dust on her clothes, she's surprisingly unsympathetic to his inertia, but she knows something we don't. Unlike his fellow countrymen, Ben isn't stunned by tragedy, but instead by indecision. He hasn't returned home to his wife or daughters since the day before, and he's debating whether he can use the cataclysm to fake his own death and start up a new life with his lover, Abby. But Abby wonders, could anyone who'd commit such a selfish act ever truly be trusted?

Clark’s performance as Ben is seamlessly layered and believable, a character whose deep selfishness conflicts with his sense of societal morality. It’s this struggle that has Ben in the titular symbolic electric chair: he wants to do something thoroughly amoral, but he doesn’t quite have the guts to have anyone know he did it. Actors frequently talk about the need not to judge their characters, particularly the villainous ones, and Clark succeeds at this, matter-of-factly putting this creature under the microscope as it writhes and bellows in moral cowardice.

Abby is no paragon of virtue—she’s having an affair with Ben, her subordinate at work, and she’s seriously considering being part of Ben’s scam—but she knows that faking Ben’s death to start a new life together won’t and shouldn’t work. She cares about the relationship, so all of her bitchiness and constant attacks on her lover are a subconscious hope that he’ll reveal himself to be a better man. Klunie plays the older and smarter Abby with ferocious energy—belittling, jabbing, crying, shouting in the acting equivalent of a ninja hit squad carving up its mark—and a rueful sense of morality that she finally can’t deny. Whatever happens in the next nine months, these two performances are some of the best of the year.

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The most important thing director Ron Klier brings to this play is restraint. A lesser production of this play could degenerate into a one-note caterwaul, and Klier prevents that by focusing on the subtleties of the interplay, the undercurrents beneath the bitter words. This is one of LaBute’s stronger plays, and his skill with harsh dialogue and sharp characters is fully in evidence here. The play is a bit longer than it could be, and doesn’t really have much to do with 9/11 (this story could happen with any disaster), but for all that, its strengths greatly outweigh its flaws. Danny Cistone’s set is impeccable, a tony and civilized arena for uncouth and vicious verbal battle.

The Mercy Seat @Vs. Theatre Company at [Inside] the Ford runs Wed.-Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm through April 24; Tickets: $20 via (323) 461-3673 or