It’s kind of shocking how incredibly complex things can get between two people. Put those two people onstage and have a couple of actors playing them and you’ve got a really compelling drama. Bring those two actors and their two characters into really, really close proximity to an intimate, little audience and you have a captivating night of theatre. Outskirts Theatre Company opens 2020 with all of the above in its production of Neil LaBute’s The Mercy Seat. Directed by Kelly Goeller, the talented pairing of actors Carrie Gray and Seth K. Hale play a couple ofNew Yorkers dealing with life in the wake of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.
Seth K. Hale plays Ben. Ben is a fugitive from his own life. He was supposed to be at work in the World Trade Center. Instead he was engaging in extramarital intimacy with his boss. Now it’s the next day and he’s missing with a whole bunch of other people. He’s at her apartment. Hasn’t called his wife and kids. Hale gives the crassness of an anti-intellectual a sympathetic depth. His delivery lacks some of the crude bluntness that seems to be written into the dialogue, but a little bit of THAT goes a long way and it would be way too easy to overemphasize that character’s general lack of sophistication.
Carrie Gray plays Ben’s boss Abby. She’s a few years older than him. She’s much more sophisticated. LaBute seems to have given her a great deal more complexity. Abby wants Ben to be open about their relationship with his wife and kids. It would be the honest thing to do, but she doesn’t exactly have the moral high ground. She IS having an affair with a guy who works for her and she knows that it’s wrong. LaBute renders Abby in a dizzying level of intellectual and emotional complexity. Gray does a brilliant job of bringing Abby’s complexity to the stage. Given the sophistication of the character and the fact that she’s given just over half of a full 90 minutes onstage, this may be one of the most accomplished dramatic performances I’ve seen onstage in the past few years. This would be a dream role for 40s-ish actress...partially because there aren’t many roles like this for women but partially because it’s an opportunity to unflinchingly play a contemporary character of great depth. Gray is breathtakingly organic as an intellectual who is given pause to consider who she is and who she might be in the fact of national tragedy. Gray lends the character a clever restlessness as she gets lost in simple pleasures and idle humor as she contemplates what just happened in lower Manhattan.
The drama plays out in 90 minutes of realtime. This is the type of theatre I love: two people delving into a really, really deep conversation in a small room on a small stage for 90 minutes and no intermission. It’s a very big conversation for the two of them that drifts in and out of small talk and idle bickering, occasionally delving into some very serious emotional and philosophical ground. LaBute, Goeller, Hale and Gray conjure a portrait of two people searching for identity in the face of tragedy on the precipice of a new millennium.
Outskirts Theatre Company’s production of The Mercy Seat runs through January 12 at The Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For more information, visit the event’s Facebook Page.