The quality of ‘Mercy’ is sort of strange, at NJ Rep

Nadita Shenoy and Jacob A. Ware share an uncomfortable moment at the workplace in MERCY, the play now in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Published in the Asbury Park Press, June 22 2018

Orville Marks (Jacob A. Ware) is a man with no small share of problems — not least of which is the fact that his pregnant wife was recently killed by a drunk driver, leaving him the entirely unprepared single father of a “miracle baby” who never cries, smiles, or otherwise makes a sound. His boss (Nandita Shenoy) is making unsolicited and un-subtle sexual advances at the workplace; his widowed father Walter (Dan Grimaldi) is urging him to go out and have as much sex as possible — and he’s just seen a man on the street (Christopher Daftsios) who he’s sure is the motorist that turned his world upside down.

It doesn’t take long before the many tragedies, frustrations and stressful situations of Orville’s life threaten to reach critical mass in Mercy, the play by Adam Szymkowicz that’s currently in its world premiere engagement at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. The various ways in which the basically introverted and deeply unhappy office drone manages to deal with his problems — or fantasize about dealing with them — form the thrust of a script that looks at the titular concept of Mercy from some odd angles; ranging from forgiveness, redemptive love and plain old pity, to humiliation, power dynamics, and the cold gunmetal of revenge.

Presented without intermission, and directed by NJ Rep artistic associate Gail Winar — her first mainstage project for the company since the goofy musical Don’t Hug Me in 2006 — Mercy offers its occasional glimpses of dark comedy; the kind that audiences aren’t always so sure they should be laughing at. But while its dramatic flashpoints are tautly constructed, and explode with the jarring energy of a quiet man pushed to the  brink, the real unsettling moments are those in which the slow simmer of the increasingly edgy Orville directs him toward some ever more regrettable choices — and directs the audience to the realization that neither we, nor he, quite know all that he is capable of.

SOPRANOS veteran Dan Grimaldi co-stars with Jacob A. Ware in the Adam Szymkowicz play MERCY.

On stage for nearly every second of the play’s running time, Repertory returnee Ware (Nobody’s Girl, & Juliet) runs an intense emotional marathon, and cuts a figure that brings to mind some of screen star Steve Carell’s nerds with attitude; a broadly drawn Walter Mitty with a genuine dark side that’s summoned into being by tragedy and travail. Whether enacting a potentially dangerous strategy in his dealings with the recovering addict Ian (fellow Rep regular Daftsios, here in his fourth project for the Long Branch stage), or sharing some uncomfortable exchanges with NJ Rep newcomer Shenoy, his Orville is a guy who’s been too long out of the loop when it comes to human interaction. He’s calmer and more confessional in the monologues delivered to his infant daughter — a silent little cipher whose father won’t even grace her with a name — while the play finds its one personification of solid ground (and baby at least finds someone who knows the basics of child care) in the gruff-but-loveable widower played by character ace Grimaldi, last seen here co-starring with Daftsios in The Jag, and best known for his dual turn as the Parisi brothers on The Sopranos.

While the men in Szymkowicz’s script are largely at the “mercy” of their own addictions, compulsive behaviors and delusions, the female characters — whether seen and heard, or otherwise — come off even weirder. They range from the sainted and eternally pregnant madonna of Orville’s very much absent wife, to the office-whore machinations and puzzling motives of boss Brenda, a supervisor bent on rewriting the corporate guide to head games, even as she breaks every sub-paragraph in the employee handbook. Throw in the nameless girl in the cradle — a creature without a voice or a face; existing in a sort of limbo as she waits for dad to grant her some semblance of identity — and you’ve got a rather unsettling picture in which the women of Orville’s world are little more than sexual predators, wispy ghosts, or literal non-entities who flourish only under the attentions of their flawed and semi-faithful father figures.

That said, the playwright and director show a good ear for dialogue, within a word-driven play (punctuated here and there by joy of sex and threat of violence) that moves briskly from blackout to blackout within the various corners of the stylized and versatile set by Jessica Parks. While, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the quality of Mercy is not strained like the bland peas and carrots of baby’s Gerber-based diet, it sure is strange, here in a little world where even the virtuous quality of mercy can come off like a slightly sadistic strategy. 

Mercy continues at NJ Rep’s downtown Long Branch playhouse, Thursdays through Sundays until July 15. Full schedule details and ticket reservations ($46) are available by calling (732)229-3166 or visiting njrep.org.