The Mercy Seat, Almeida, London, <br></br>Electra, Gate, London<br></br>Breathing, Latchmere, London

When life imitates art imitating life
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The Independent Culture

Talk about timing. I arrive home from the Almeida, switch on the news and hear that 40 names have been removed from September 11th's list of the dead because it can't be proved they were killed in the terrorist attack. I have just returned from watching The Mercy Seat, Neil LaBute's latest play set in Manhattan the day after 9/11. In Michael Attenborough's excellent production, set in business executive Abby Prescott's loft apartment, sirens pass in the street below, but her cosy home seems otherwise untouched. The decor is very civilised, industrial with arty touches - warm lights, big fridge, abstract paintings, ethnic sculptures (Robert Jones's astute design).

The blinds are drawn and Ben Harcourt (John Hannah) is sitting - still in yesterday's suit-trousers and shirt - not answering his mobile. It rings frequently - like a nagging conscience - throughout the play; Ben's plan is to be born again out of the pyre of the Twin Towers. He intends to spare everyone from a messy divorce by leaving his wife and kids to believe he died there. He wants Abby (Sinead Cusack), his lover, to start a new life which he apparently believes won't be tarnished by guilt.

Abby is his superior at work and, though tempted by his scheme, occupies the moral higher ground too. She has been out on the streets, and on returning, questions Ben about his blinkered, self-centred reaction to this vast human tragedy and his lack of emotional expression.

This two-hander is essentially a long quarrel, with moments of respite. It may not be LaBute's most thrillingly brilliant work (the last telephonic plot twist feels slightly strained; the sniping goes round in loops that almost become wearisome), yet Ben and Abby's verbal assaults - undermining each other's sexual, professional and ethical positions of power - are compulsive viewing. This pair's imperfect communications are extraordinarily realistic.

Major political issues also become subtly incorporated into this personal conflict. Ben is an antihero who embodies some of the long-standing values of America's pioneers, provocatively pushing them to an egotistical extreme. He's the ultimate opportunist in the Land of Opportunity, boldly (though hardly courageously) ditching his old world to become a self-made man with, presumably, a manufactured identity. Throwaway American phrases - "it's OK" or "whatever" - crop up repeatedly, and implicitly add up to a damning criticism of today's casual-going-on-amoral creeds.

One's sympathies veer surprisingly. Hannah's Ben is quietly chilling, with a malign brooding gleam in his hooded eyes. At the same time, his spontaneous physicality - holding Cusack's head in his hands till she cries - seems disarmingly heartfelt. She is on top form, too: sharply intelligent, sarcastic, funny and just vulnerable enough to make the whole scenario credible. Recommended.

The proud city of Argos looks set to be razed to the ground by enemy forces at the end of Jean Giraudoux's version of Electra, written in 1937, and revived here as part of the Gate's season of modernised Greek myths. This production is instantly exciting for the palace of the ruling Atrides is a long, narrow court of corroded steel, hemmed in by the audience and studded with glimmering pools. Lucy Briers' Electra - mourning her father, suspiciously loathing her mother Clytemnestra and longing for her long-absent brother - looks like a surly boy in 1930s-style white flannel trousers. The reverberations seem more immediate, however, after Paul Burrell's rewrite of the Diana saga. Clytemnestra was trapped into an unhappy marriage and has a secret affair. Electra is a dangerously messed-up princess, determined to set the record straight and not convinced Agamemnon fatally slipped in the bath. It is, surely, not without significance that Giraudoux worked as one of France's chief government press officers.

In practice, this production proves hard work. The protagonists hold forth rather abstrusely about justice, and director Erica Whyman compounds the problem, permitting garbled verse-speaking from Charlie Roe's Aegisthus. That said, Giraudoux's poetic imagery (translated by Winifred Smith) can be scintillating, and the piece becomes gripping when political lectures are subsumed into a psychological exposé of incestuous desires. Briers' pallid Electra is frighteningly fevered, shaking with rage and zeal. Joanna McCallum is also magnificent as her superciliousbut nervous mother.

I also returned to the talent-nurturing Latchmere this week, having been impressed last month by new playwright Phil Porter and his disturbing portrait of a contemporary adolescent with an Electra complex. Regrettably, in this month's premiere, Breathing by Jennifer Farmer, the standard has dipped. Paul Higgins' production is well-intentioned and Farmer's script engages with current issues - racism, education, crime - but I found myself wishing the two mothers and two kids who sit around on a beach in this interminable US tragedy would swim out to sea. Moody teenage Kelly is dying to get away from her "white trash" mum and ditch her unambitious black boyfriend. Joe, though smart, insists he just wants to settle down with Kelly in Hicksville. Their mothers, Marie and Gloria, are lying on the same beach but, it turns out, many years later - on the night of Joe's postponed execution for killing Kelly.

The trouble with Farmer's dialogue is that everything is reiterated and the observations are mostly banal. There is some structural complexity as separate conversations are intercut and overlap. However, the extra flashbacks where the mothers encounter their children, are sorely undeveloped. The violent conclusion is also hard to credit with the slim, mild, evidently sober actor Darren Hart playing the drunken, supposedly beer-bellied and obsessively clingy Joe. Still, Lauren Fales's delicate beauty and glazed bitterness are curiously transfixing.

k.bassett@independent.co.uk

'The Mercy Seat': Almeida, London N1 (020 7359 4404), to 6 Dec; 'Electra': Gate, London W11 (020 7229 0706), to 15 Nov; 'Breathing': Latchmere, London SW11 (020 7978 7040), to 16 Nov

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