At least until the end of the Capital Fringe Festival, philosophically inclined theatergoers can find hell in a church basement. One Universal Race Theater’s production of Sartre’s classic meditation on the damned, staged in Mt. Vernon Episcopal Church’s B-103 studio, is lively, but it strays from the text’s relentless intimacy in favor of broad theatricality and modern references that feel a bit forced.
Audience members are ushered into the space by a grinning valet (Thomas McGrath), who cryptically substitutes “final destination” for “your seat.” When the audience is seated, there’s a last addition: Chad Rollins (Garcin in the original script, played by Kenny Littlejohn) is ushered onto the spare set, comprising three benches and a table with a basin, a letter opener, and a buzzer.
Understandably, he’s puzzled at the lack of flames and torture implements. Alone long enough only to ask for a toothbrush, he’s joined by two others, called Anne Tripper (Inès originally, played by Hilary Kacser,) and Esther Park (Estelle in the original, played by Jung Weil). They share Rollins’ same confused relief, but soon they find that eternity in a room with each other might be more torturous a fate than any grisly fable.
The venue suits the story. The room is small, and audience members can see the actors’ sweat under the portable lights. Such proximity is suitable for Sartre’s imagining of an inferno partitioned into little cells. The production, however, doesn’t often capitalize on this intimacy. The actors pace their confines from the get-go with vigor verging on melodrama, leaving little room for escalation in the show’s climax.
Each character becomes a weapon against the others. Anne, a lesbian postal worker with a fondness for cruelty, is tempted and thereby tormented by Esther, a coquettish girl with expensive tastes. Rollins is tormented by Anne’s insistence that he is a coward. Esther is desperate for Rollins to affirm her value, which she equates with physical beauty. The torture, however, seldom feels real. Cackles and weeping fits too soon and too often eclipse the more horrifying sense of slow dread built up determinedly in the text.
The adaptation, too, is ambitiously wide in scope without much finesse. In this production, Rollins is a soldier from DC shot for deserting his post in Afghanistan. As Garcin in the original script is a deserter from WWII, this conversion is reasonable, but it’s not complete in this production. Rollins balances baroque phrasing such as, “I always harken back to one thing” with colloquialisms including, “We’re gonna bust out of hell,” and the combination proves too unwieldy to be believable.
Tripper, too, has a small case of linguistic schizophrenia. We’re not given much information about her origins, but peppered French phrases come without much context. Such an allusive breadth undermines the success of the original text, both in French or in faithful translations: that the focus is on bared, scrutinized human personalities, stripped of all earthly context.
Despite these rough points, however, the conflicts at the heart of the story are compelling. Esther’s narration of her principal sin is inflectionless enough to be both terrifying and believable, and Rollins’ struggle with dueling temptations is well portrayed. Tripper’s horror at a man and a woman sharing what was her bed on earth is a well-placed invitation to empathize with the story’s most ardent antagonist.
These moments of bare emotional truth in complicated contexts are No Exit‘s strengths, and, well-executed, a better homage to Sartre than any amount of “voila.” The production works best when it presents with simple force the uglier needs at the heart of much human action, and the dangers of letting affection corrode in callousness. Enough of the original script’s force comes through to make the story recognizable despite a modern reupholstering, but fans of more traditional adaptations will miss much of what made Sartre’s original so powerful.
No Exit has 5 performances, ending July 28, 2012 at Mountain at Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church 900 Massachusetts Ave NW DC.
Details and tickets
Running Time: One hour with no intermission
by Jean-Paul Sartre
Directed by Shelby Sours
Adapted by Jung Weil
Produced by One Universal Race Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Duffley