“What do you find in any living room? A sofa, a small table, arm chairs, a mantel piece, and sometimes a Barbedienne bronze sculpture. So much for the set,” said actress Gaby Sylvia, recalling the genesis of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 black comedy, No Exit, which was written to be performed in a private residence in Nazi-occupied Paris. “There would be no intermission,” added Sylvia, who was in the original staging as well as a 1954 film adaptation, “because of the curfew.”
Out of these simple expedients came one of the 20th century’s most influential plays—a meditation on the attempt to discover some meaning in life, even in the most hopeless circumstances.
In Sartre’s 90-minute one-act, three people have been struck dead in their prime and sentenced to eternal damnation. A womanizing journalist who hid his cowardice behind pacifist rhetoric when he deserted the army, Joseph Garcin has been executed by a firing squad. Inez Serrano, a lesbian postal clerk who took malicious pleasure in turning people against one another, has been murdered by her lover. And Estelle Rigault—a socialite who married an older man for his money, got pregnant by her boyfriend, drowned her baby, and drove the boyfriend to suicide—succumbed to pneumonia.
These three “absentees,” as Estelle calls them, find themselves in a locked, windowless, mirrorless drawing room decorated in haute-bourgeois style. Their task is to figure out why they’ve been damned and why they’ve been confined with strangers with whom they seem to have nothing in common. There are no demons waiting to torture them for all eternity. These civilized sophisticates are one another’s tormentors, locked in an unbreakable chain of psychosexual frustration. Estelle, who defines herself by her relationships with strong men, teases the weakling Joseph even as she fends off Inez’s unwelcome advances. This is Sartre’s metaphor for hell—which is in turn his metaphor for existence.
The Hypocrites’ new production, directed by Sean Graney, plays the material for outrageous comedy with mixed results. Instead of the stuffily elegant drawing room Sartre envisioned, scenic designer Tom Burch delivers a hot pink, sharply raked triangular playing area furnished with three armchairs of different sizes, one of which is coin-operated and vibrates. The room is dominated by a life-size, gleaming-white classical statue—a male nude whose embodiment of human perfection highlights the inadequacies of the characters, who can’t restrain themselves from stroking its smooth, beautifully curved buttocks. At the front of the stage are two desk-size globe maps representing the world of the living. And outside the room, thanks to lighting designer Jared Moore and sound designer Kevin O’Donnell, is a roaring maelstrom of red-hot lava—the hell of medieval imagination.
As Joseph, Inez, and Estelle, Robert McLean, Samantha Gleisten, and Erin Barlow explore the cat-and-mouse dynamics of the situation with broad physical humor, stalking one another around the tiny room as they vie for the most comfortable chair, then fidgeting like children while trying not to acknowledge the others’ presence. In the smaller role of a supercilious valet, John Taflan arbitrarily fondles them. The dialogue is sometimes given a jokey spin, as when Estelle mentions that she feels “queer” and Inez’s face lights up hopefully to underscore a double entendre Sartre never intended.
Initially provocative in its unpredictability, the production at some points takes on a manic energy better suited to a Joe Orton sex farce. When Joseph, Inez, and Estelle doff their clothes and chase one another around the cramped room, their sexy slapstick obscures the script’s simmering tension. It’s as if Graney didn’t trust the text to speak for itself, or the audience to pay attention. But he slows the pace down again toward the end of the show, and his final image effectively captures the sense of feeling isolated in the company of others. Flawed as it is, this No Exit ultimately does affirm the enduring strength of Sartre’s play.