By Jean-Paul Sartre Translated by Paul Bowles
Directed by Robert McNamara
Produced by Scena Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
The remarkable thing, considering how celebrated Jean-Paul Sartre is as a chronicler of the human condition’s hopelessness, is how conventional No Exit really is. It is not an existential treatise, it is a morality play, in which some thoroughly repulsive characters get it in the teeth. Indeed, the play it resembles most is A Christmas Carol, if Scrooge did not have an unhappy childhood to explain away his miserliness, and had the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be booted his backside to the hereafter, instead of returning him to his London bed.
In this lively translation by Beat writer Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky) and serviceable production by Scena Theatre, Cradeau (Regen Wilson), Inez (Ellie Wilhite) and Estelle (Maura Stadem) find themselves in Hell after a lifetime of living badly. Inez and Estelle are sexual predators – Estelle heterosexual and Inez not. Cradeau is a self-regarding prig and a coward. (Estelle is in addition hopelessly vain. It is a particular feature of her Hell that there are no mirrors.)
For the three of them, Hell is a room in a bad hotel, with dusty Swedish-modern furnishings. They quickly get down to the business of ferreting out each other’s sins, thus revealing the acts which have landed them in Hell. (“They’ve made a saving in their hired help,” Inez observes. “Each of us is the torturer of the other two.”) Armed with this information, they each use it as a club to achieve their impossible objectives: Estelle, to win the love of Cradeau; Inez, to win the love of Estelle; and Cradeau, to lie down in silence with a handkerchief over his face. When they are not so employed they tune in to see how they are regarded, post mortem, in life. It is invariably a disappointment.
“Hell is other people,” Cradeau observes famously at the end of the play, but he is wrong. Hell is these other people who are so fatuous and obnoxious that they would make Mother Therese mutter and curse, and St. Francis of Assisi bang his head against the wall. There are plenty of people, including Sartre himself, who would be swell company throughout eternity, even in a bad hotel room.
The principals, who are reprising the roles they played in this play two years ago (see Juliet Moser’s review here) give a creditable account for themselves. Wilson is particularly effective, using a raspy, Bruce Willis-y twang to good effect to create a character full of bravado, but as empty as a drum. Wilhite and director McNamara do an interesting thing with Inez: her predatory hostility toward Cradeau is indistinguishable from her predatory lust toward Estelle. She wants to consume both of them, and it does not seem to matter whether she does so for reasons of love or hate. The text entirely justifies this interpretation but it does make Inez somewhat of a one-note character.
Stadem establishes Estelle’s character early in the play but her transitions from emotion to emotion proceed too quickly to be fully believable. Stadem has done this in other productions as well; it is an unfortunate failing in an otherwise strong actor. Chris Moss does a nice job in a brief appearance as Hell’s Bellhop.
Audiences in 1944 had a tolerance for wordy discourse that current audiences do not. McNamara does nice work in moving his characters around unselfconsciously during scenes heavy with dialogue without distracting us from the points Sartre is trying to make.
At the conclusion of the play, stand up and turn to your right. There will be a large, illuminated sign. “EXIT,” it will say. It will be a great comfort.
(Running time: 90 minutes, without intermission.) No Exit will continue to run Thursdays through Sundays until October 21. All shows at 8 p.m. except Sundays, which are at 3. Tickets $25-$30. Call 703.683.2824 or visit the website.