BEFORE I BEGIN my review of David Rabe's new play A Question of Mercy, let's have a show of hands. How many of you believe that a terminally ill AIDS patient, in constant pain, humiliated by the multitude of tumors, sores, and failures of his body, and praying continually for death, shouldn't be allowed to take his own life?
A Question of Mercy
Intiman Theater, ends June 5
Fine, naysayers. You probably won't want to watch this play.
But the problem for the rest of us is that there's not a lot to make us want to watch this play either. Rabe, once a playwright with a genuine set of sharp incisors (think of the moral outrage of Hurlyburly or the preachy but sincere deconstruction of military life in Streamers), has delivered a script so toothless, so clumsy, so strewn with clich鬠that it's a wonder just how artistic director Warner Shook was gulled into giving it a full production.
That's not to say that the source material for the play—an essay by Dr. Richard Selzer that appeared in The New York Times Magazine—is necessarily at fault. Selzer's account of how he was approached by a young man seeking advice on how to go about helping his lover commit suicide is an interesting piece of writing. While Selzer is sympathetic to the plight, he's no Kevorkian; the essay is an account of how he's gradually won over to an increasing degree of complicity in the proposed death, and it is filled with a number of detailed insights into how difficult it can be to commit suicide with painkillers and what specifically happens to the body at the time of death.
But what is thought-provoking on the page turns out to be deadly on the stage, particularly because Rabe seems bizarrely unable to transform the real-life events into something with its own particular dramatic structure. Instead, the result resembles a disease-of-the-week TV movie, where the weight of the subject is supposed to cover up for the inadequacies of the script and acting. At times this tendency is just this side of self-parody, as when Selzer's fictional counterpart, Dr. Chapman (Jeffrey Hayenga, working hard to look morally tormented), meets his "patient" Anthony (Jos Viramontes, suffering very nicely, thank you) for the first time. After introductions, the young man goes straight from serving cookies to exhibiting symptoms, including an invitation for the doctor to follow him into his bedroom so that he can see his sores and lesions.
There's also the problem that Chapman's crisis of conscience is essentially a small one. He starts the play by telling us he has considered suicide a viable option to pain, and all we see during the next two hours is his gradual decision to help another human being achieve it. This lack of a galvanizing crisis leaches away any life the subject might have, despite a couple of hokey "dream sequences" that Rabe inserts where the doctor imagines himself arrested or caught in a suicide pact with his charge.
Perhaps even more embarrassing than the lack of dramatic tension in this script is Rabe's egregious overwriting. After detailing how exactly the group of friends is going to ensure the success of Anthony's suicide attempt, Chapman suggests that they run over it all again. And despite the growing horror of the audience, they do so. At other times, the unfamiliar moral territory leads Rabe into language that isn't just opaque, but patently nonsensical, as when family friend Susanah (Amy Thone) gives us this poetic insight about snow: "It's cold, and it's delicate, but it falls." Yes, it's shocking that snow, given its temperature and structure, doesn't rise from the ground, but there you go.
When a play is this bad, it's tempting to go hunting for whatever hidden motives have led to its presentation: Gambling debts? Blackmail? But it's probably a lot simpler. Rabe's an important playwright (despite the evidence on stage), and certainly the subject matter deserves serious social debate. It also deserves a better play, and if the producers are right and assisted suicide is going to be the next big moral issue, we can only hope it gets one.