Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit is one of those canonic icons that most theater-literate folks are familiar with but probably haven’t seen. When intellectuals of Sartre’s type attempt to market their philosophical arguments in the form of drama, it usually does not yield well. But even after 70-plus years, No Exit remains a fascinating and provocative examination of human nature.
The play depicts a corner of the afterlife in which three deceased characters are locked in a room together to writhe under each other’s devouring judgement for eternity. Sartre’s conception of Hell being the enduring angst of being perceived by others is manifestly enhanced by Nu Sass Productions’ small-space staging at Caos on F St., an art gallery available for rent in Penn Quarter.
No Exit is the second installment in Nu Sass’ thoroughly engaging Small Batch Audience Series, a showcase for intimate and immersive theater limited to 20 attendees per show. They sold out a run of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day in the same space earlier this year.
While the intimate staging idea is not new, it is rarely practiced to this degree and feels electric and bold. The audience is spread out within a small room, around the edges of the set, inches from the action and liberated from the safeguard separation of the typical proscenium design with its attendant complacency.
Of course for the experience to work, the boldness of the staging must be consummated with the production, which in this case, mostly meets the challenge.
Garcin (Kyle McGruther) is a journalist who fled his country and his responsibility under the guise of pacifism during an unnamed war. A Brazilian in the original play, the character was changed to be a Frenchman and suspected Nazi collaborator in Paul Bowles’ later adaptation in a sure nod to where Sartre’s thoughts lay. Written during the German occupation of Paris during World War II, Sartre’s most refined loathing was reserved for specimens like Garcin, who refused to take part in resistance action.
Garcin fancies himself a man’s man, and claims that his jailing and execution as a traitor was due to his standing up for his beliefs. But he is racked with fear that the truth—that he is a coward—will be his public epitaph, for in Sartre’s view our weaknesses are apparent and it’s the perception of others that see through our self-deception that defines us. In laying the bricks for his defense, Garcin says, “Can one possibly be a coward when one’s deliberately courted danger at every turn?” But then his guilt has a say when he follows with “And can one judge a life by a single action?”
Inez (Aubri O’Connor) is a bitter, manipulative sadist and self-described “damned bitch” who proudly admits to the abuses she carried out on those close to her in life. She’s also a lesbian, which of course isn’t the scandal it was when Sartre drew her. Her demanding intelligence and cynicism act as a foil to Garcin, in that he can’t coast by her assaultive condemnation of his blithe self-depiction, while his mere presence disturbs her compulsion to control.
Rounding out the trio, Estelle (Amber Gibson) is a vain, shallow peacock who married out of greed and murdered in a fit of self-loathing. She brandishes her externalities to get what she wants, concealing a crushing sadness and spiteful jealousy behind a beautiful façade. Easily pushed and pulled by the other two, the promise of her sexuality holds great power over Inez, while she herself futilely craves Garcin’s attention to make her whole.
The three actors deliver an array of performances, with McGruther the standout for sustained intensity. Upon entering the room at the play’s start dressed in a dark suit and garnished with a magnificent beard, he sets an edgy, darkly comic tone. He’s a mass of nerves, pacing and staring, and gifted with a dexterous physicality, able to artfully convey anxiety and agitation in movement.
Somewhat mannered and imitative upon her entrance, Gibson worked into her role as the play developed (in her defense, it was opening night). By the time she reached an extended monologue late in the play reacting to her friend’s usurpation of a young man she desired when alive, she became mesmerizing. Staring out at a scene we only see through her description, she circumnavigates the room several times, her pitch getting higher and higher, alternating between poles of vulnerability and stridency, revealing a rotten core underneath her pretty, prim shell.
O’Connor was the weak link, never really becoming the character but instead working in the transition zone between actor and character. It’s the interval where inexperienced actors work: where being angry translates into raising your voice and widening your eyes and being seductive means pursing your lips and narrowing your eyes.
The fourth character in the play, the Valet (Tiffany Garfinkle) who brings the damned to their eternal lodgings, was written for absurdist effect (I suppose), but is here turned into a creepy master of ceremonies through the lens of Ed Gorey.
November 5 – November 22, 2015
CAOS on F
923 F Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
1 hour, 30 minutes
Thursdays thru Sundays
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Director Angela Kay Pirko choreographs the actors’ movements and physical interactions to sustain energy over the heady 90 minutes.
The production design is rudimentary and at times more distracting than effective. The set, sparsely furnished, could have just as easily been an empty room but for the play’s several references to the “Second Empire style” furniture. The lowering and raising of the lights to suggest the characters looking out beyond their prison is basic but functional, but the odd beeps and bloops of digital noise in the sound design is gratuitous. While some sound supporting what the characters are “seeing” in the beyond sets mood, other sound effects remind one of a children’s haunted house, reinforcing an overall Twilight Zone feel to the proceedings.
I don’t give stars easily, but I’m bestowing Nu Sass Productions’ No Exit with four of them not because it will blow you away or because the source material is stellar—Sartre’s adulterated melodrama can be clunky and lacks sophistication—but because 1) everyone should see No Exit at least once in a lifetime and 2) seeing it in this small-space setting is perfect. Nu Sass adroitly captures the tense despair and bleak humor of Sartre’s classic drawing room lesson: People are stuck with the choices they make for the rest of their days and the inability to act when presented with choice is the ultimate horror.
No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre. Directed by Angela Kay Pirko. Featuring Kyle McGruther, Tiffany Garfinkle, Aubri O’Connor and Amber Gibson. Set Designer: Eric McMorris. Lighting Designer: Colin Dieck. Sound Designer: Hope Villanueva. Produced by Nu Sass Productions. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.