Almost anyone old enough to remember the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks also recalls all the details of that horrible time — where they were and what they were doing when the World Trade Center towers collapsed. In the intense, two-character drama The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute, the attacks serve not only as a tragic backdrop but also as a life-changing opportunity.
The Asheville-based Ellipsis Theater Company stages the show through Sunday, May 20, at 35below.
The tale unfolds somewhere in New York City on Sept. 12, 2001, when a couple is riding out the disaster in an apartment. Ben (played by Badi Mirheli) was supposed to have been in one of the World Trade Center’s towers on that fateful day but never showed up to work So, Sept. 12 finds him with his lover, Abby (Jamie Knox), who also happens to be his boss.
The technology featured in the set is so old-school, it’s fascinating. Beyond the ancient cellphone, the clunky television resembles something from the Dark Ages. And there are many little effective touches, such as passing sirens, that serve as a reminder of what has happened to the city.
Slowly, we learn Ben’s plan. Other than Abby, no one knows he survived, including his wife and children. It’s the perfect time for the couple to disappear — move far away to begin new lives.
Abby, however, is far from sold on this scheme. The stakes are too high, especially for Ben, who would be abandoning his children. Meanwhile, Ben and Abby are far from the perfect couple. They’ve kept their affair secret, which greatly adds to their stress, and they are constantly bickering. And then there’s Ben’s ringing telephone, which is essentially a third character, reaching out for contact.
Director Jeff Messer (an Xpress contributor) pulls some serious performances from his cast. Mirheli is riveting as Ben, plotting his move. One wonders if the character would be considering the same actions if the attacks hadn’t happened. Mirheli reaches deep to bring out Ben’s many flaws. Knox, meanwhile, shows a lot of heart as Abby. She stares out an unseen window and continues to urge Ben to make contact with his wife. She is believable as a woman facing a hard decision.
The chemistry between these two players and a couple of touching emotional scenes reveal the depth of the relationship, and the small size of 35below amplifies the feeling. But there is also a lot of yelling, plus some graphic sexual discussion, that makes the show inappropriate for some audiences.
LaBute has included a surprising plot twist that resolves the situation in one way but leaves another big element dangling.
While it’s unlikely that viewers will leave The Mercy Seat laughing or smiling, it’s a production that will stick with audiences for a while after they leave the theater.
WHAT: The Mercy Seat by Ellipsis Theater Company
WHERE: 35below, 35 E. Walnut St., ashevilletheatree.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, May 20. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. $18