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No Mercy 

A playwright's flight of amoral angst crashes and burns in The Mercy Seat.

It's bad enough that the tragedy of 9-11 has been flogged by politicians to justify damn near anything they want to do, but when a playwright employs that humongous emotional sledgehammer to crack a minuscule walnut -- using the attack on the World Trade Center as a setup for a thin and rather repulsive relationship gambit -- a repugnant moral line has been crossed.

Neil LaBute, author of The Mercy Seat now at Ensemble Theatre, is known for boldly and brutally assaying the putrid side of contemporary folk. His movie In the Company of Men is an edgy and genuinely upsetting look at how humans can casually manipulate the vulnerability of others for sport. But in this play, LaBute steers his misanthropic bus off a short pier, failing to create characters that engage on any level. And once the play's over, it may take a couple shots of Baccardi Orange to get the foul taste out of your mouth.

Ben Harcourt (a suitably whiny John Kolibab) and Abby Prescott (icy Meg Kelly Schroeder) are Trade Center office co-workers and off-hours lovers who were playing knob-polishing hooky at her nearby apartment when the planes hit. The play begins several hours later, with Ben sitting in stupefied silence in the flat, which is dusted with fine white ash. His cell phone is ringing (an impossibility at that time and place), and he's not answering it. Abby arrives with a package of Havarti cheese in hand (an improbability in the chaos of lower Manhattan), and they're soon at each other's throats about trivial issues.

It turns out that these lovers -- he's married with two daughters and 12 years younger than her -- have already concocted a plan to use the tragedy outside as a shield to enable them to run off together. He's going to pretend he was killed (that's why he's not answering the phone) so they can begin their lives again in Arizona, free of his soon-to-be-grieving family and her stultifying although high-paying job. But we never learn why Ben, who claims to dearly love his children, could so easily decide to torture and devastate them by faking his own death. Meanwhile, Abby is portrayed as equally superficial, complaining among other things about their doggy-style lovemaking.

Indeed, if the play had been about their struggle with this decision, many interesting points might have been raised. But that would have undercut the rock-ribbed cynicism in which this playwright traffics. Director Licia Colombi keeps the pacing brisk, but is ultimately defeated by a script that is more intent on conveying the maggoty underbelly of life than in dealing honestly with real characters.

When discussing their sexual predilections, Abby complains that Ben's focus on her "back porch" means that he never looks at her when making love. This play has a similar approach to the audience, asking us to get down on all fours and just take it, prefabricated nihilism and all. Sorry, but we demand a lot more foreplay, and maybe a nice floral arrangement, for that to happen.

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