“No Exit” contains that most famous of Jean-Paul Sartre quotations: “Hell is other people.” The main problem with Sean Graney’s very lively and creative new production of the existentialist drama from 1944 is that it’s clearly the work of an incessantly curious director in love with other people.
The Hypocrites’ “No Exit” is a very entertaining 90 minutes. But a disconnect erupts here between the sardonic Sartre and the garrulous Graney.
Sexual groping is an integral part of the action in this famous piece about a trio of badly behaved malcontents who find themselves in Hades, awaiting a torturer but ultimately discovering that the boss knows that they can torture each other perfectly well. In most productions of “No Exit,” the hellish little seductions, obfuscations and manipulations of the confused threesome with the sinful past have a weary, fatalist tone. In Graney’s colorful hands at The Hyprocrites, they all look like rather a good time.
Sure, the quarters are a little close on Tom Burch’s fabulous hot-pink set — an off-kilter room that looks like a fun-house in a warped wonderland. And there’s no question that that furnace-like quality of the second floor of the Athenaeum Theatre certainly puts the audience in mind of the potential proximity of flames. But Erin Barlow (who plays Estelle), Samantha Gleisten (Inez) and Robert McLean (Garcin) make quite the engaging trifecta of deceased sinners, revealing each other’s transgressions (and their own flesh) and driving each other crazy in their little box. Even John Taflan, who plays the Valet from hell, is a rather charming chap, waving us a cheery goodbye at the end of the show.
Now, you could certainly argue that a little pep doesn’t do “No Exit” any harm. Rare is the existentialist who could not benefit from being sexed up a little. And Graney opens his typically engaging bag of theatrical tricks here, including a plethora of physical antics and some very amusing shtick involving a rear-facing nude statue. He also lends the show the retro patina of the French new wave — both women have that Euro-sensibility down and McLean looks a lot like a denizen of the Champs-Elysees sidewalk, circa 1966. And there’s no question that the cast are willing to engage in some intense inter-connections as the sweat forms on their attractive brows.
But you don’t get all the requisite sense that life as these characters knew it has ended —and that they know have to deal with an eternity whose horrors are unfolding as they go. There’s not enough sense of discovery. There is insufficient primal pain. They’re not a happy crew, sure, but you don’t see their souls break as hell reveals itself in all its dead simplicity.
McLean’s Garcin doesn’t come with the usual callousness, but he does have his weasel-like moments. At one unpleasant point in his discovery, and in one of the most telling moments of Graney’s production, Garcin blurts out the defensive line: “Do you know who I was?”
Ah, there’s the rub. If we’re truly all equal in hell, you can well imagine a lot of mercurial powerbrokers spluttering such pathetic attempts at self-justification. Perhaps hell is not so much other people as ourselves. If so, I’d like Graney along down under, so we could all at least have some arty fun.