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A CurtainUp Review

By Les Gutman

>The word "mercy" appears nowhere in the script of Laura Cahill's new play, and there's not a hint of mercy -- the act of compassion -- in any of its four characters. What, then, are we to make of this one-word title?

The answer to this question reveals the key we must find to unlock, and thus appreciate, this play.

Mercy is not a play about grand themes, fascinating people or elegant scenery. It does not "transport" us. It focuses on a group of ordinary Upper West Side twenty-somethings who are lost somewhere along the continuum between growing-up and grown. They can no longer depend on their parents, but they can't yet afford therapists.  They suffer from a condition that is familiar, yet few are likely to identify with it willingly.

This play's signature is its fragments. Sarah (Amelia Campbell), in whose apartment Mercy is set, defines the prevailing mindset: "I have a feeling of almost....". Indeed. May God have mercy on their souls.

Cahill is an exquisite if unglamorizing observer. Her play has a shapeless quality that can be unnerving, but it perfectly suits her subject. There are broad gaps in what we know about the four characters who come together for an impromptu dinner; they are grasping for such details themselves, and Cahill wisely avoids getting ahead of them. Nonetheless, she has wrought the quartet in distinct, honest, recognizable portraits. As staged by Loretta Greco, some of play's most telling, and funny, moments have no words associated with them at all.

What's going on here? Not much. Sarah's friend, Isobel (Marianne Hagen), comes by for a visit. Both are in the wake of fractured relationships, and repairing the damage is the chief item on their agenda. Intent on at least looking happy, Sarah calls Bo (Matt Keeslar), an erstwhile actor abruptly turned singer. He's "the perfect company". Bo has dinner plans with Stu (Adam Trese), an obstacle Sarah easily eliminates by inviting both to dinner. But Stu also happens to be the "ex" from whom Isobel is trying to recover. Oh well.

Running just one hour and forty minutes including an intermission, logistics likely dictated Mercy's two-act structure. I'm inclined to think this would have played better as a more modest one-act. It would have required less "filling," and it would have prompted lesser expectations. But so be it.

In this production, Cahill's keen writing is wrapped in equally attentive packaging. William Barclay's set is a study in details, reproducing with precision the appointments of an apartment that will feel like home to any number of people who have lived in almost identical ones all over the Upper West Side. It is eclectically furnished in a style that reveals a scavenger's eye for the bounty of the streets, matched with a necessary if frugal investment in function. Similarly, Elizabeth Hope Clancy has dressed the actors in carefully considered clothing that exposes the nuances of their personalities perfectly. Kevin Adam's lighting, aided to great comic and dramatic effect by a raft of candles, is exceptional, shifting as the sun passes through and eventually from the early summer sky. And David Van Tieghem has done a masterful job of establishing the play's context by his choice of music, as well as providing entertaining sound effects that highlight the blackouts between scenes.

Cahill's work also benefits here from some excellent performances by this cast of young actors. Amelia Campbell works hard to make the play's most difficult character, Sarah. She is believable, but doesn't quite get there. Her task is a tough one that requires reconciling some unfortunate combinations: she's a good talker, but a bad listener; and an airhead who speaks her mind. She seems well matched to Keeslar's excellent Bo, with whom her chemistry is quite good. We might understand this affable, innocent man if we were told he'd been dropped on his head once too often as a child. Keeslar is sure-footed, conveying an earnestness that avoids any of the buffoonishness into which this portrayal could easily descend. He also expresses one of the central themes of these lives -- the struggle to clear away barriers that keep people from doing what they want, from finishing what they start -- with conviction and yet simplicity.

There is an exposure of emotional depth in Isobel's character that eludes the others. I'm guessing here, but I suspect some autobiography is going on here. Happily, Hagen is not only able to plumb these depths, sustaining the play's most vulnerable character, but is also able to find its comic core, which she exploits verbally and, with splendid direction, physically. By contrast, there is little evidence Stu's personality even has an emotional component. Trese is excellent in rendering this doctor (who has now decided he wants to be a writer instead) more machine than man: scientific and predictable -- practically robotic -- and yet no more rational or grounded than the others. The dinner table interaction, between Trese and Keeslar virtually in counterpoint, is among the play's finest moments.

Despite its utterly contemporary content, Mercy strikes me as an old fashioned play. It's a play that may seem too slight by today's theater standards. In the days before television -- an instrumentality some would suggest is responsible for many of the faults on display here -- this would have been deemed a worthwhile evening's entertainment. I'll let you in on a little secret: it still is.

Reviews of several other Off-Broadway plays about young Manhattanites you might want to check out: This Is Our Youth and Stop Kiss.

by Laura Cahill 
Directed by Loretta Greco 
with Amelia Campbell, Marianne Hagen, Matt Keeslar and Adam Trese 
Set Design: William Barclay 
Costume Design: Elizabeth Hope Clancy 
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams 
Original Music and Sound Design: David Van Tieghem 
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street (Union Square East/Irving Place) (212) 353 - 3874 
opened December 15, 1998 
Seen December 15, 1998 and reviewed by Les Gutman December 16, 1998
Geared for an open run but unable to find an audience the show turned into a limited run, closing 1/03/99

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