BY MARTHA JEONG
I recently asked a skeptical friend whether he would be interested in being my play date for a morality play written by an existentialist French philosopher; his response was less than ecstatic. I decided to try again with my powers of persuasion: “What if I told you the story was about strangers in hell including a sadistic lesbian, the possibility of a threesome lurks in the corner, the stage moves like a continually unbalanced see-saw, and you can watch it without even leaving Harvard Square?” Now I was making some progress…
The American Repertory Theatre’s production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit delivered more than I had promised. Although a quick read beforehand of the play and basic knowledge of Sartre’s philosophy proved to be additionally helpful in seeing how director Jerry Mouawad crafted the production, the witty dialogue, creative staging and provocative acting were more than enough to keep any audience enraptured for an hour and thirty minutes. Sartre wrote the original draft of No Exit in a mere two weeks in Paris and it was first produced in the spring of 1944 during the Nazi occupation of France. No Exit was deliberately written as a one-act play so that theater-goers could watch it without staying out past the German-imposed curfew.
With no intermission, this one-act play marches on continuously with no room for distraction. With one blink, you feel as if you’ll miss a beat, a remark, a gesture, or an unsteady step taken forward. Perhaps you can say it accurately and ironically mimics the conditions of Sartre’s version of hell, which takes place in a window-less, mirror-free room where the lights never go out and one loses even the luxury of blinking. Upon finding himself in hell, one of the characters, Gazin, remarks, “Blinking, we call it…You can’t imagine how restful, refreshing, it is…So that’s the idea. I’m to live without eyelids…No eyelids, no sleep…I shall never sleep again. But then–how shall I endure my own company?”
The intricacies of hell are slowly revealed to Gazin and the audience as he finds himself trapped forever in this hotel-like room with two strangers. Not only must Gazin endure the misery of his own company and sins, he has the other two to deal with as well. Sartre’s infamous line resounds here: L’enfer, c’est les autres- Hell is other people. The three recently deceased strangers — Gazin, Inez, and Estelle — find themselves escorted into the hotel room by an eerily animated valet. All of them expect Dante’s Inferno, and Inez even mistakes Gazin for her iron poker toting torturer, but all they find is the company of one another in an otherwise semi-pleasant hotel room. All have committed sins: cowardice, infidelity and murder; their sordid stories tumble out, literally, one by one. The unstable stage in which each of the character’s steps have an effect on each other produces the great effect of isolating each character against the others. The constant teeter-tottering below their feet accentuates the tension which builds among the three strained relationships as they realize they were put together in this room for a reason: to play on each other’s fears and weaknesses forever and forever. No other hell is needed. Sartre’s devil lets the damned create their own hell.
Inez: Obviously there aren’t any physical torments…And yet we’re in hell…In short, there’s someone absent here, the official torturer.
Gazin: I’d noticed that.
Inez: It’s obvious what they’re after– an economy of man-power– or devil-power, if you prefer. The same idea as in the cafeteria, where customers serve themselves.
Estelle: Whatever do you mean?
Inez: I mean that each of us will act as torturer of the two others.
Long considered by critics to be Sartre’s best play and the most accessible dramatization of his existential philosophy, I found A.R.T.’s production of No Exit to be smart, fast and funny. As for any preconceived notions about a philosophical play, it was far from preachy and thoroughly entertaining, while at the same time capturing the full essence of Sartre’s powerful dialogue about human existence, relationships, and sin.
Go see it while you can; No Exit is performed at the Loeb Stage only until January 29th. $15 student rush tickets can be bought the day of the performance starting at noon through the phone (617-547-8300) or in person at the box office (64 Brattle Street). See performances dates and time on-line at http://www.amrep.org/.