Mercy Me! Terrorism at Home: LaBute Lovers In Domestic War

The plays-the disturbingly fashionable plays-of Neil LaBute are problematic for me. Hailed as our leading dramatic voice by some discerning critics, Mr. LaBute’s youngish characters and jerks are nasty pieces of work in themselves: last season’s rock ‘n roll The Shape of Things , for instance, with its vile art student gleefully abusing her naïve, dopey lover, or the mindless woman-haters of his film In the Company of Men abusing a deaf girl. At least it can be said that Mr. LaBute loathes both sexes equally in these modern morality plays born of emotional terrorism and moral chaos.

He intends to provoke and goad audiences into a response- any response (including rejection). In principle, I’m for those who risk just that. I’m for all those who create whirlwinds in our complacent theater. But, alas, I find myself unconvinced by Mr. LaBute’s boldness. The Mercy Seat , directed by the author, with Sigourney Weaver and Liev Schreiber, at the MCC Theatre, is a sensational example of his reaction to Sept. 11. On the one hand, he’s daringly reacted against the P.C. piety of our times. On the other, we actually end up with a lesser version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that’s built on an opportunistic premise.

Ben, who’s in his 30′s, and Abby, older by 12 years, are lovers at war, and we meet them in crisis in Abby’s downtown loft the day after 9/11. Mr. Schreiber’s memorable performance makes the flawed drama more powerful than it actually is. His brooding, dangerous, fiercely introverted Ben is an archetypal LaBute hero. But I’m afraid the two leads aren’t the equal adversaries they should be. Ms. Weaver’s unexciting Abby is no match for Mr. Schreiber’s combustible portrait of soullessness. Her performance needs more firepower and emotional bite-more presence -unless Mr. Schreiber is to go it alone. Even so , The Mercy Seat has opened up a can of worms-or, as Mr. LaBute puts it in the preface to the published edition of the play, “I hold up the mirror higher and try to examine how selfishness can still exist during a moment of national selflessness.” He vividly puts it this way in the best exchange of the play:

” … do you honestly think we’re not gonna rebound from this?” the spineless Ben argues. “And I don’t just mean you and me, I’m saying the country as a whole. Of course we will. We’ll do what it takes, go after whomever we need to, call out the tanks and shit, but we’re gonna have the World Series, and Christmas, and all the other crap that you can count on in life … I’m saying the American way is to overcome, to conquer, to come out on top. And we do it by spending and eating and screwing our women harder than anyone else. That’s what I’m saying.”

“That’s really moving,” his lover replies dryly. “It’s like seeing a Norman Rockwell for the first time.”

It turns out that the lovers missed the 9/11 catastrophe because Abby was giving Ben a blowjob at the time. (My irreverent laughter at that turn of events, I ought to add, was stifled by the solemn silence surrounding me). Mr. LaBute is funnier than his misanthropy can make him seem. But The Mercy Seat grows rocky on its own blatant Ground Zero-the emptiness of its two unlovely, bickering protagonists.

There are pro forma power plays and diversions. “You’re the fucking guy in this relationship, let’s face it,” says Ben. “You’re like a complete cultural moron,” says Abby. She’s a ball-breaker who’s a secret sentimentalist. He’s smarter than she is, I thought, in his defensively inarticulate way. Sublime self-interest like his is unconquerable. There are sexually prurient details, par for the intercourse with Mr. LaBute. (Ben makes love to Abby most frequently from behind-nothing, she protests in so many words, to build a Taj Mahal around.) But the fatal flaw of the piece resides in its own emotional cant. Will Ben tell his wife and children at last that he’s leaving them, as he’s promised his lover? Or will he play dead by pretending he was killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and begin a new life with her someplace?

The problem with accepting Ben’s first dilemma is that Mr. LaBute’s sullen, childish anti-hero is an unapologetic shit who would have left his wife years ago if it suited him. His favorite word is “Whatever,” his calling card a shrug of narcissistic indifference. “This is me,” Ben tells the unshocked Abby. “I always take the easy route, do it faster, simpler, you know, whatever it takes to get it done, be liked, get by. That’s me. Cheated in school, screwed over my friends, took whatever I could get from whomever I could take it from.”

The man’s an empty shell. We don’t believe for a second he’s the kind of guy who would be concerned about dumping his wife. That Mr. LaBute gives him a very belated little outburst about loving his unquestioning children is begging for sympathy in all the wrong places.

As for the feckless hero taking on a new identity and running off into the sunset with his lover-how does he propose to disappear into the void? We learn that everyone in the office already knows about their affair. How, then, do they hope to get away with it? Why would she go along with his insane plan, anyway? She’s a powerfully independent lady-an important Wall Street executive of some kind. (He works for her.) How will they live their new outlaw lives? (No credit cards, no bank accounts, no trace.) They’re tantalizing questions, but Mr. LaBute doesn’t trouble to provide us with any answers.

He doesn’t provide them because, in the end, he can’t. It’s a shallow game he’s playing, ending with a lame trick. Mr. LaBute’s plot, which repeats and circles itself, has led us to believe all along that our hero’s internal crisis is between fleeing or telling his wife about the affair. Surprise! It wasn’t his wife he was going to leave. It was Abby!

The revelatory curtain line is a cheap device. We’ve been set up (and we feel shortchanged). Mr. LaBute protests peculiarly in his preface, “I have no idea why I wrote this play. Really, I don’t.” Really, he does . Forget his coyness. He set out, as he says, to explore a drama between battling lovers in the context of 9/11. The daring catastrophic context could have been liberating, but the manipulative drama itself is small and doesn’t ring true.

Tommy’s Tall Tales

A note on Tommy Tune’s prematurely closed Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails , which inaugurated the splendid new Little Shubert Theatre on 42nd Street’s Theater Row. The 6-foot-6, almost 64-year-old Tommy has been starring in Las Vegas of late, and may his bank account always swell.

But to bring what appeared to be a Vegas lounge act to Broadway wasn’t too wise. There were also three short geezers who shared the stage with him, who are known as the Manhattan Rhythm Kings, and one of them played the kazoo during Tommy’s beaming rendition of “When I’m 64.” And there was a 16-piece orchestra who played the music of the Gershwins and Irving Berlin, and so on, and everyone in the orchestra dutifully applauded Tommy at the end. All things considered, Tommy didn’t sing too badly, and he tap-danced, too, in his sequined tails and diamante tap shoes. One of the rousing lyrics went “Everything old is new again,” and even though I’m not so sure that’s true, what the hey.

But Tommy’s question time was new to me, although it’s normal to have a question time in Las Vegas, where if there’s anything you want to know about Engelbert Humperdinck, say, all you have to do is ask. The geezers from the Manhattan Rhythm Kings came out into the audience with microphones as Tommy nestled down cozily to sit on the apron of the stage like Judy Garland used to do. And his fans asked various questions, such as: “How do you walk quietly when you’re wearing tap shoes?” (The answer is: Carefully.) Or: “When are you going to do a big Broadway show again?” (Which seemed to irritate Tommy a bit.) But then a middle-aged lady emerged from the shadows to ask him, “Do you remember me?” and the night was suddenly fraught with possibilities.

Tommy looked blank, but amid the giggles and happy applause, he invited the trembling lady onstage to meet him. She was tongue-tied. “What do you do?” Tommy asked her. She stammered that she was a speech therapist! And everyone laughed because they appreciated how awed she must be in Tommy’s presence. But where had they met? It was at Tommy’s school in Texas, where he taught a dance class, and she was in the same class all those years ago-more years ago, anyway, than Tommy was prepared to say. “I was crazy about you,” she cooed, looking up at him as, I thought, he wiped away a tear. “Well it’s never too late!” Tommy exclaimed cheerfully.

And so it went, this unexpected, teary reunion between the middle-aged housewife with kids and the boy she knew who became a star. Yet I couldn’t help noticing that Tommy didn’t seem too thrilled to see her. The hugs seemed a little token; Tommy’s sudden memory rush when he miraculously remembered her name was surprising; the adorable tap dance they performed together was possibly programmed.

My goodness, I thought in my cold-hearted way, what if she’s a plant? What if-and here we get to the philosophical nitty-gritty of the Tommy moment-all reality is fake?

I was still brooding about the matter when the curtain came down on an image of Tommy’s hands releasing Picasso-like doves of peace. But as soon as I returned home, I called a friend who’d seen Tommy’s show at a previous performance.

“Was there, by any chance, a sweet old lady who went up onstage during question time?” I asked him.

“The one who said, ‘Do you remember me?’” he replied.

“That’s the one. They were at school together in Texas.”

“Yeah, sure,” he said.

You know something? People are getting very cynical. I never expected it from Tommy, though.