No Exit

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday April 28, 2013

No Exit

Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 plays about three people in Hell is what you might call a psychological tour-de-force-majeur. Over the course of a little more than two hours, this trio of strangers writhe and slither over one another, creating knotty bonds of allegiance, dependency, attraction, enmity... all the ingredients for an eternity of kaleidoscopic mental and emotional torments.

The transgressions of these three range from the mundane and expected (sexual sins such a lust, adultery, possessiveness, and jealousy; sins of commission, such as manipulation and murder; sins of omission, such as neglect and scornful emotional deprivation) to the sublime. (Is cowardice a sin? How about layer after layer of self-deception and ultimate over-compensation?) The play's most famous line has it that "Hell is other people!" ("L'enfer, c'est les autres") but there's more to this utterance than the surface meaning of misery imposed by means of those in one's company.

The setting is deceptively placid. Three couches in the "Second Empire" style sit in a parlor; a bronze sculpture sits on a mantle, along with a lamp. There's a buzzer button to summon help from a staring, long-fingered minion (Jeanine Frost), whose posture and eager, cruel smile suggest a predatory nature that could involve a tearing of meat and a crunching of bone -- or the equivalent in terms of a human soul. This minion (a demon? A damned soul serving time?) refers to the post-mortem occupants of Hell as "guests," as though the underworld were a grand hotel, and in a way it is: A succession of rooms and corridors, and that, the minion assures the new arrivals, is all.

The room's first new guest is Garcin (Robert C. Latino), the publisher of a "pacifist newspaper" whose attitudes toward war and peace turn out to have been informed by his desertion of the ranks during the Second World War. Not that his having fled the field of battle changed his earthly fate, which involves a bullet-riddled death. How he arrived at that end comes to light slowly, and as much through implication as statement; as we learn about the choices that led to his destruction and damnation, we also become privy to the suffering he inflicted upon his wife, a creature Garcin looks upon as soft and weak. Like any bully, he dishes out cruelties to her as much because of her failure to reproach him as because of his own selfish and overriding desires.

We find these things out through the insights of the two women who join Garcin, mostly Ins (Wendy Lippe), a lesbian with a penchant for treating other people like pieces on a game board. Ins conceives a raging lust for the room's third occupant, Estelle (Judith Kalaora), who at first seems sweet and innocent (if somewhat over-refined to the point of snobbery), but whose failings are just as spectacular as those of the others.

There are a few superficial elements to the play that could distract one from the deeper cross-currents of the text; Garcin's sexism, for example (he regrets being lodged with women because men would, like him, know the value of silent introspection), or the implicit message that Ins is in Hell as much for being a lesbian as for her pitiless and hard-hearted way of treating others. (Though, it's only fair to say, Estelle's perpetual need to define herself in terms of the men she seduces is presented as just as much of a mortal flaw).

But there are deeper layers to be pondered once one looks past those surface features. Similarly, the characters seem to be gifted with an ability to see through the walls of Hell into the world of the living, at least with respect to the places and people that were once part of their own daily lives. They tune in with anxiety to what others have to say about them; they peer into the rooms in which they once dwelled, and react with shock and horror to the things that the new occupants of those rooms do (and the things that former colleagues and relatives say about them).

Clearly, if "Hell is other people," it's just as much defined by an inability to escape one's own ego; this is true for every single moment of eternity, because the damned are denied even the temporary reprieve of sleep.

It's into the labyrinth of ego that Sartre follows these three doomed souls, who worm and ferret their way through each others' secrets and lies but have a limited ability to plumb their own dark depths, despite Garcin's stated desire to "sort out" his life after the fact and Ins' awareness of her own streak of wickedness (characteristics that deftly, and with great insight on Sartre's part, create a bond as powerful between the two as love).

Each performance of this co-production between The Psych Drama Company and Algonkuin Theatre Projects offers a post-show discussion that offers illumination on the play's comments on the human psyche, and the inferno that is human relationships, both between individuals and between each person and society at large.

Director Marty BlackEagle-Carl (who is also Algonkuin Theatre Projects' Producing Artistic Director) has no problem summoning the setting in the performance space of The Factory Theatre, and the actors bring vivacity to their roles; they visible itch and writhe in the confines of their nicely furnished room, and Kalaora summons tears at a couple of junctures in a way that shows that her character's girlish innocence is not entirely a guise.

Where the production hits an interpretive wall is in the range that the material demands of its performers. The big emotions (rage, hatred, jealousy, lust, regret) are here in full force, but other emotions are overshadowed or missing. Can love be a sin, the way lust can? Are these people capable of love? Is anyone truly capable of love, and if so, can it redeem souls trapped in Hell? What about the flashes of rueful glee the characters light up with on occasion, when they realize they are on the far side of mortality and now faced with Eternity? We get a sense of something important there, but it slips away.

This play is regarded as existentialist, but in a way wants to go beyond the problems of time, meaning, and human existence. The characters complain about Hell's heat and stuffiness; the audience sweats right along with them. What's needed is the occasional contrasting, cool breath of the angelic.

"No Exit" continues through May 4 at The Factory Theatre, 791 Tremont Street in Boston. For tickets and more information, please visit http://www.thepsychdramacompany.com/index.html

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.