“A Question Of Mercy”: My FT Review

Here is my review of the current off-Broadway revival of David Rabe’s “A Question of Mercy,” from the Potomac Theatre Project.

At the rear of Atlantic Stage 2, where David Rabe’s piercing 1997 drama A Question of Mercy is in revival, hangs a synthetic curtain. It suggests a hospital room: in this story about an Aids patient set on suicide, the afflicted character, Anthony, has had his fill of bedside transactions. The curtain also suggests the ebb and flow of revelation: Dr Roberta Chapman, a prematurely retired surgeon whom Anthony and his lover, Thomas, have asked to assist with the suicide, is trying to uncover a few secrets.

Based on a New York Times essay by Richard Seltzer, Rabe’s play gets short shrift in dissections of his work. And yet, with the exception of his Hollywood masterpiece Hurlyburly, A Question of Mercy strikes me as Rabe’s most incisive effort. The Potomac Theatre Project, which specialises in the dramas of socially concerned playwrights, deserves praise for bringing the staging to New York.

Plaudits are due to Potomac, whose co-artistic director, Jim Petosa, stages Mercy a little like a chess game amid four chairs and a coffee table, not only for an affecting production but also for coming in advance of new airings of better-known Aids dramas. Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is getting a big revival this autumn in New York, and Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is being talked up again for a film, perhaps with Mark Ruffalo.

Rabe’s drama is less about the politics of Aids than about the process – the legal and pharmaceutical risks – of ending a life. Mercy does not rehearse the reasons for suicide as thoroughly as Marsha Norman’s play ’Night, Mother. Yet I felt that mercy had been given a much more complete examination than in The Merchant of Venice, currently in an over-praised Central Park production that stars Rabe’s daughter, Lily.

Of Mercy’s cast, Tim Spears gives the standout performance as the lesion-marked Anthony, with Alex Cranmer in stolid support as Thomas. I could barely take my eyes off the Dr Chapman of Paula Langton, who slightly resembles the Irish actor Fiona Shaw. Her quizzical distance, however, in the early scenes, struck me as unpersuasive: even a surgeon prematurely retired by an existential crisis might relax her sense of perplexed wariness a little sooner.

Leave a Comment