In the Mercy Seat

In the Mercy Seat Neil LaBute is no more anti-American than he is misogynistic or homophobic.

Neil LaBute is no more anti-American than he is misogynistic or homophobic.

But if you read the articles responding to his early theatre and film successes — "In the Company of Men," Bash — or his most recent piece — The Mercy Seat — you'd think that this mild-mannered father of two is a monster. Recently, at his "too trendy" hotel in Manhattan, LaBute spoke about his new play (and how Sigourney Weaver ended up starring in it) as well as his experiences working on the stage and screen.

The Mercy Seat, which began previews Nov. 26 and opens Dec. 18 for a limited one-month run, plays the 200-seat Acorn Theatre on West 42nd Street. Liev Schreiber, most recently on Broadway in the revival of Harold Pinter's Betrayal, and film and stage actress Sigourney Weaver costar in LaBute's two-hour one-act.

A great deal of buzz has surrounded the play, as it "falls under the umbrella of September 11th." LaBute recently said, "The play takes place about 20 hours after the attacks on the World Trade Center. It's five in the morning, and a [married] man (Schreiber) and an [older] woman (Weaver), who work together, have been having an affair. He has been professing to leave his family and go off with her but never has. [After] the initial shock [of the disaster, Schreiber's character] realizes that this could perhaps be what he has been looking for." The man suggests to his lover, "Why don't we just go away? I'm dead now. My kids will think I'm a hero — let's do it."

The play's title — The Mercy Seat — is a Biblical reference. "The Mercy Seat was the top of the Ark of the Covenant," LaBute explained, "that in the temple was the one space where God could come and man or the priests could speak before him." Which of the characters kneels before the Mercy Seat? "Well," said LaBute, "I think, hopefully, both of them are at some point kneeling before it. They are throwing themselves at the feet [of God] looking for mercy." About his two New York characters, Abby Prescott and Ben Harcourt, LaBute said, "I've never really written anything that was too autobiographical. But I am a big poacher of listening to people. [I] listen to the dynamics of how people's lives are and then [I] try to work them into a framework that interests [me]. So, [the characters] come from some sort of cocktail of things you heard and things you imagined, and that's probably the best way, because I'm not a biographer." Because of her involvement with The Guys — Anne Nelson's play that also addressed the 9/11 attacks — some might find it odd that Sigourney Weaver is acting in LaBute's work. "The irony was certainly not lost on Sigourney" LaBute said. "She looks at it as two very different reactions for a person to have [to 9/11]." In fact, in The Mercy Seat LaBute presents characters who offer "some very hard truths [that audiences may not] necessarily like [to hear]." "You know what?," one of the play's characters says, "It's obvious that it's horrible, but we're still going to have the World Series, and there's going to be Christmas and all of the other shit that happens in your life." Additionally, large portions of the play address sexual aspects of the characters' relationship rather than focusing on the horrors of 9/11.

LaBute also spoke about the perfect fit between actress Weaver and her character. "I wanted someone really strong," said LaBute, "and [Sigourney is] visually imposing. She's like six feet tall. She's got a real strong feel, [which is] just the opposite of the male character. There's just no bullshit to her. And I've seen [Sigourney] in enough work that really touches you or really breaks your heart that I thought when you see a strong person broken, it's always a more heartbreaking thing. Someone who's really fighting it . . . someone who's not frail or about to come to tears in the first two minutes of something but who really is sturdy and has been broken down by the events. She just sort of had all of the parts . . . the intelligence of this woman that I wanted . . . . the look . . . she just sort of had everything in the package that you could want."

Because of the subject matter and time frame of the play, LaBute is unable to predict audiences' reactions. "[I'll] be curious to get this thing in front of an audience, especially a New York audience," LaBute said. "I'm only concerned when [the audience] turns off completely: 'I won't listen to this because it's a play about that day and it doesn't waive a flag in a way that I want it to be waived.' Once you stop communicating with an audience and they get up and leave, then you've wasted your time and lost the argument as well." LaBute hopes that a New York audience will "sit and listen and say, 'Well that's certainly not the way I feel, but this is an interesting point of view.'"

The playwright is also looking forward to a busy 2003. His recent play, The Shape of Things, was shot as a film starring the original cast of Gretchen Mol, Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz. The film will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January and is slated to open in April or May. LaBute is also adapting a novel and is considering a remake of the old British horror film, "The Wicker Man."