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The Flawed Couple

Michelle Michael (right, with co-star Max Hartman) does her darnedest to make Neil LaBute's ham-handed dialogue sound real in The Mercy Seat.
Stern Hatcher

A man and woman sit in a living room. She's a pretty blonde. He's well-dressed but mushy around the midsection. Good paintings hang on the wall behind them. The soft beige leather sofa and two pale chairs positioned just so make a visual statement about the couple's social status (high) and location (Manhattan). The man and woman argue. From their tone it's obvious their relationship is in its last stages. They get loud. Louder. There are tears, recriminations, apologies, but no reconciliation. About 90 minutes later, the man and woman stop arguing, the lights go up and the audience goes home.

That's a bare-bones description of two small but ambitious productions currently running in Dallas theaters: Edward Albee's Marriage Play, staged by WingSpan Theatre Company at the Bath House Cultural Center at White Rock Lake; and The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute, getting its Southwest premiere by Kitchen Dog Theater at the Black Box Theater at The MAC. The premises are surprisingly similar, and so are the set designs, but these two one-acts differ in one important aspect: One is high art, and the other isn't.

The Albee play is the artistic achievement, no surprise. Marriage Play, with its word games and cryptic, circular exchanges between husband Jack (Mark Oristano) and wife Gillian (Susan Sargeant), sounds very much like the juicy scenes in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that boozy old George and Martha engage in as warm-up before the arrival of their guests. In the newer play, written in the 1980s, Jack and Gillian stay sober, for the most part, but they get every bit as verbally violent as George and Martha.

Marriage Play begins with Jack striding purposefully through the front door. "You're home early," says Gillian, flipping pages of a book. "Yes," Jack replies, "I'm leaving you."

Gillian thinks he's joking. They've been married 30 years. To convince her, Jack steps in and out four more times, each time announcing, "I'm leaving you." Gillian jokes, "Perhaps we should put in a revolving door," but she begins to get the message.

What follows is a lively battle of words and wills between the two characters. Secrets tumble out. Gillian reveals to Jack that she's kept a "clinical record, a set of notations" about their sex life. Every bedroom encounter over three decades has been entered in a diary with details of "duration, position, time of day, necessity and snatches of conversation." Entry No. 800 is "Will he never learn?"

Jack is stunned and angry. "What kind of woman are you?" he asks. Answers his wife, "I don't know. You tell me."

He forces her to read aloud from the book of lays. Then he mocks her writing, with references to Hemingway, Melville and Pope. She counters with a tale of infidelity and some vitriolic assaults on Jack's manhood. "A lot of things are predictable," Gillian cracks. "You, for example, and everything about you."

Things get physical. Jack and Gillian pound and slap each other viciously (a sequence wonderfully choreographed by Robin Armstrong). Then they lie back and get a second wind.

On a set by Randel Wright that turns the tiny, dark Bath House stage into a sprawling, elegantly lit penthouse apartment, Marriage Play offers a dark but often funny glimpse into the harsh truths of a union gone asunder. Jack and Gillian have hit their tipping point, that precise moment in time when they cannot stand each other any longer but aren't sure what will happen if they dare to change. How many marriages teeter on just this delicate balance between love-me and leave-me-alone?

Albee is a bitch to act, all those pauses and choppy, repetitive phrases. But Sargeant and Oristano are nearly perfect in bringing out the honesty and vulnerability of Gillian and Jack. Oristano is stronger in Jack's monologues, holding back a little tentatively in his heavier moments with Gillian. But Sargeant, yellow hair glowing under the lights, gets right to the center of Gillian and is powerful to watch whether she's being icy and sarcastic or broken and pleading. This is the actress' best work.

Director Rene Moreno, Dallas' finest interpreter of difficult plays, keeps the volume and visuals of Marriage Play flowing in unexpected ways. The actors use every inch of the set, but even when they're lying flat on the floor or draped over the sofa, it always looks natural, like two people comfortable in their own living room, not actors doing predetermined moves. Moreno knows pacing, too, and not a minute of this production feels forced, stagy, overblown or overacted. This play has it all--Albee's witty words and two wonderful actors bringing them to life.

With its many throwaway references to literary greats, Marriage Play sounds a whole lot smarter than The Mercy Seat does with its mentions of Dan Rather, Jeopardy!, Austin Powers, Audie Murphy and the Amazing Kreskin. Neil LaBute's 2002 play also looks at the final hours of one couple's doomed romance, but with the added weight of the tragedy of September 11.

The time is just before dawn, September 12. Outside the Manhattan apartment of Abby Prescott (Michelle Michael), ash from the Twin Towers falls. When we first see Abby, she's returning from a food run, her black jeans and jacket dusted white. Waiting for her is lover Ben Harcourt (Max Hartman), a junior member of Abby's staff with whom she's been involved for three years. On his way to work at the World Trade Center on the fateful day, Ben, married with children, has rerouted his destiny by dropping by Abby's for a tryst. Nearly 24 hours later, he hovers somewhere between his old life and a new one with Abby.

For what feels like hours (really just over 90 minutes), Ben and Abby fight about their options. She wants him to tell his wife the truth, that he's alive and leaving her. But he's willing to play dead and never see his daughters again for the chance to give up a routine he says has left him "getting by on fumes."

The problem with the play is that it's impossible to care what happens to this pair. LaBute's work for stage and film--Bash: Latterday Plays, In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things--is replete with amoral characters who hate God, themselves and everyone else. The Mercy Seat's Ben is a shallow, heartless, sleazy loser. Besides cheating on his wife, "I cheated in school and screwed over my friends. My marriage is a fiasco. I barely register as a dad." Not to mention that he's sleeping with his boss. And what's in it for Abby? Why would a bright, attractive woman in her 40s risk anything for a witless schlub like Ben? She doesn't even seem to like him much and tells him he's bad at sex (he prefers positions where he doesn't have to look her in the eye). He calls her the C-word.

Directed with unnaturally static blocking by Cecil O'Neal, The Mercy Seat is a pain to sit through. Michelle Michael is a lovely actress who does her darnedest to make LaBute's ham-handed, Mamet-influenced dialogue sound like conversation. But Hartman is a washout as Ben. When he finally grabs Michael for what's supposed to be a passionate kiss, he grunts and snorts like a boar rooting for truffles. This selfish character as played by this actor makes a man no right-thinking woman would want to wake up with in an emergency.


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