Sartre’s anticipation of Lost, in which three strangers contemplate an eternity of mutual torment in the afterlife, has the form of an absurdist romp but the soul of a 19th-century melodrama. The verve of No Exit’s diabolically ingenious premise, trapping the actors onstage for the duration, gradually dissipates as the characters confess their squalid sins before settling into an interminable debate over journalist Garcin’s (McLean) courage or lack thereof. The Left Bank philosopher seems ultimately most interested in providing a 90-minute Existentialism for Dummies: His play never approaches the sublime exuberance of Beckett or Ionesco.
To his credit, director Graney handles this often-lugubrious material with a light and thoroughly irreverent touch. The production opens brilliantly, with gray plastic curtains parting to reveal Tom Burch’s appropriately cramped set, a hot pink perspective box featuring a classical marble nude and a door mounted parallel to the floor, like a Magritte with David Hockney’s palette. Following inspired byplay between Garcin and the irascible Napoleonic valet (Taflan), a collection of madcap devices ensures there’s always something worth watching onstage, whether it’s ingenue Estelle (Barlow) loudly emptying her pockets onto the floor or sardonic Inez (Gleisten) tacking the pages of Being and Nothingness to the walls with toothpaste. All this business may not really illuminate Sartre’s play much, but it certainly beats another debate on whether a man is more than the sum of his actions.